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Cameras in Courtrooms?


Exploitation or a step toward a better system?

Britain is planning to televise portions of their criminal trials. Of course, we’ve been doing that here in the U.S. for a long time for high-interest cases. Having television cameras in a courtroom might raise concerns of exploitation or show trial behavior. Lawyers are going to behave differently for the camera, we think. Worse still, maybe the judge will too. But how so? Are there benefits beyond transparency to public scrutiny? Will some attorneys and judges put more thought and effort into what they are doing if they know the public is watching?

I was still in law school the first time I really got to experience the circus that is a busy court docket.  I went in expecting reverent proceedings in a quiet and stately setting. Something like what we’ve all seen on TV shows and movies.  Courts have those moments, for sure. But that tends to be during actual trials and contested hearings, and usually it is only quiet because that is the only thing scheduled in the room at the time.

What I found was, more often than not, courtrooms are bustling with activity and overflowing with people waiting to be called up on the docket. While the judge is handling one case at the podium, attorneys are talking to in-custody clients in the jury box and other attorneys are talking to each other behind whoever is at the podium. People are up and moving around, coming in and out, checking in, talking to the court clerk, and so on. It’s busy. It feels like a packed DMV where everyone in the waiting area is also making trades on the NYSE floor. Most of all, it brings home how each case is just one little piece of a very big system churning through hundreds of cases before lunch.

Courts can feel like big machines to people being pushed through them. But they can start to feel that way to attorneys and judges too after a while, and that is seriously dangerous to our system. In my opinion, complacency and disinterest are far more dangerous in this setting than performing for a camera might be. For our adversarial justice system to work the way we all want it to, everyone needs to be doing their best work all the time. Maybe letting the public see what is going on in courtrooms more regularly, and not just for cases involving wealthy and prominent people, would level up the work that is being done there.

Televising or otherwise broadcasting court proceedings can also help those outside the courtroom. I am a trial lawyer interested in all things trial-related. I enjoy watching others in court and I learn from doing that. Watching and learning from others in court builds my own knowledge, skill, and confidence. Opportunities to observe court proceedings make lawyers better, which in turn better serves both courts and clients.

And no, this is not at all about me just wanting to say “Hi mom,” but that would be a bonus.

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