TV or Not TV - That Is the Question

By Lassiter, Christo | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

TV or Not TV - That Is the Question


Lassiter, Christo, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


The Courtroom Television Network, now in its fifth year, is the first serious commercial effort to televise selected trials nationally and to provide expert commentary on what happens in America's courtrooms.(1) More than twenty million viewers have access to the Court TV network.(2) Court TV has televised more than 340 trials.(3) Apart from its entrepreneurial aspirations,(4) Court TV hopes to permit the American public to see the inner workings of a trial courtroom.(5)

Televised coverage of trials is a growth industry, fueled by an oversupply of lawyers competing for clients in an information-intensive free market economy6 as well by a public eager for courtroom drama.(7) Forty-seven states have adopted legislation which allow television cameras in the courtroom in some form, subject to the judge's discretion.(8) However, the exercise of this discretion may yield to the siren call of the media. Only Indiana, Mississippi, South Dakota and the District of Columbia impose an absolute ban against in-court cameras.(9)

Despite the surge in popularity of televised court proceedings, the bar has always, at best, been ambivalent about embracing cameras in the courtroom. Television coverage of a high profile criminal case such as the O.J. Simpson trial - the new "trial of the century" and perhaps the most watched event in history(10) - has by its very success or excess renewed interest in the wisdom of allowing cameras in court.(11)

Contemporaneous with the excesses of television coverage, a discernible tide has risen against cameras in court, especially in simulcasts of high profile cases.(12) It is not yet determined how state courts will cope with the problems of televisions, impact on trials in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial. This question is already under review in a number of influential jurisdictions. For example, the New York State legislature recently rejected a bill to continue its experiment with cameras in the state trial level courts.(13) The state legislatures from California(14) to Georgia(15) have re-examined or adopted more restrictive measures designed to limit cameras in court, while Tennessee has become less restrictive in allowing camera coverage since the O.J. Simpson trial.(16) In-court camera coverage has only on-again/off-again appeal in federal courts, where judges are appointed with life tenure and do not depend on high visibility for re-election. In the 1994 U.S. judicial Conference, the policy-makers for the federal courts rejected a proposal to allow television cameras in federal courts on a permanent basis,(17) effectively banning cameras from the federal court rooms.(18) In 1996, the U.S. judicial Commission reversed that absolute position by a fourteen to twelve vote to allow cameras in federal court rooms if the individual judge chooses to do so.(19) The United States Supreme Court has not formally considered, nor appears likely to approve, any request to televise oral arguments before the Supreme Court.(20) Other countries also hesitate to permit cameras in the courtroom. Reported resistance includes courts in Canada,(21) England,(22) Ireland,(23) Scotland,(24) and Italy.(25)

This Article discusses the prejudicial impact of cameras in the courtroom. At the outset, it is important to distinguish between the effect of cameras in the courtroom and cameras outside of the courtroom.(26) Likewise, it is important to distinguish between pretrial television publicity(27) and television publicity occurring during the trial. This Article focuses on the impact of in-court cameras on the judicial process it explores the ways that merely adding a camera to the reporter's arsenal of media tools significantly alters the judicial process in ways which pad and pen never did. The wisdom of hindsight presages reconsideration of current practices permitting cameras in the courtroom. TV or not TV in the courtroom is indeed the question. The answer is worth reconsideration starting from first principles. …

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