The People's Court

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, November 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

The People's Court


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


While judges across the U.S. shut courts to the press and public, California's courts are becoming models of openness

Like the 1954 murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in Cleveland -- remembered or at least mythologized as a chaotic circus where participants shoved justice aside as they mugged for the TV cameras -- the widespread public disgust over the conduct of O.J. Simpson's more recent criminal trial in Los Angeles has proven a handy rationale for those who prefer to treat America's courtroom as a cozy private club where the press and public are decidedly not invited.

In state after state, proposals to permit cameras in more courtrooms or otherwise open public access to all aspects of trial have been swatted away with a few offhand references to Judge Lance Ito or attorney Johnnie Cochran. And while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told The Ottawa Sun the other day that she wouldn't necessarily object to cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court's prevailing opinion was pretty much summed up by Justice David Souter's famous comment in 1996 to a Senate subcommittee: "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom it's going to roll over my dead body."

Little noticed as courts grow less open all around the country is the fact that the courts in California -- which endured not only the O.J. fiasco but the trials of such infamous defendants as the Menendez brothers, the Hillside Strangler, Charlie Manson, and Zsa Zsa Gabor -- are transforming themselves into models of public access.

The latest evidence came a little more than a week ago when the Judicial Council, the administrative arm of California's court system, voted 18-1 to forbid judges from automatically sealing court records.

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