Cameras in the courts

The unwise: In a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday, Kathleen Parker made every demonstrable error on the subject, using the notorious Zimmerman case as her proof. Parker deplored that the coverage is “good theatre but bad for justice,” that “video cameras alter reality,” and that cameras prejudice a defendant’s fair trial because “the audience is directing the play.”

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In fact, The Zimmerman case proves the opposite of Parker’s arguments. While no one will ever know what happened when Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, the excessive pretrial publicity created one abiding perception of the event, but at trial evidence under oath and cross-examined challenged those perceptions. The audience never directed the play, as Parker claims, because the judge ran a discreet and fair trial. The public trial presented the case better than pretrial publicity did, and the defendant has not been prejudiced by the television coverage. Neither defendant Zimmerman nor Martin’s family has claimed the trial wasn’t fair.

The wise: The informative and authoritative SCOTUS Blog about the Supreme Court reported Wednesday that federal legislation has been offered, again, to allow cameras in federal courts “unless a majority of the Justices agree that doing so would compromise the constitutional rights” of a party. Bills have been proposed before (I testified on the last go of it), but were not passed.

Under their inherent power to control their proceedings, two federal circuit courts of appeals (2nd and 9th) now permit televised arguments, but the federal trial courts are not authorized to and do not, though all state courts now do. There has been plenty of experience demonstrating the falseness of historic claims that cameras prejudice trials. The U.S. Supreme Court resists what could be the most edifying opportunity to inform the public by limiting real coverage to audio, along with the “snippets” we get when reporters write 500 words about a 200 page opinion.

The time for television coverage of court proceedings is here. The administration of justice should be observed by the public.

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