Friday, October 13, 2006

Cameras In The Courtroom


Accountability For Judges And Lawyers

The Cool Justice Report
Oct. 13, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

Accountability for judges became a hot-button issue for the Legislature this year after Connecticut's chief justice withheld and delayed publishing a controversial decision about access to court records.

Reformers have proposed a long list of solutions, including a pilot program allowing the broadcast of certain criminal trials. Judges and lawyers are equally torn over the idea that this staid and stodgy state would permit such complete public access. In recent years there has been an onslaught of TV dramas attempting to portray the criminal trial process. Celebrity trials like O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson captured our attention, almost like an addiction.

Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, etc., have created an almost farcical view of the process. The proliferation of CSI shows has created a false impression in potential jurors that somehow every case can be resolved in a short time span by super forensic sleuthing. Hollywood has created an unrealistic sense of what occurs in a criminal trial.

The furor over sealing files and allegations of backroom politics in the judiciary demonstrates that the system needs revamping. What better way to put lawyers and judges on our best behavior than by allowing the public to watch what we do on TV.

I recently became a frequent guest commentator on several programs on Court TV. As a cable network its audience has swelled to almost 90,000,000 viewers. People not only watch, but also comment on multiple message boards. These are not shut-ins with nothing better to with their time. Many of the comments are insightful, provoking intriguing debate.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a public trial. When the framers of the Constitution penned that, they were concerned about the secret Star Chamber proceedings that they fled in England. Colonial trials were conducted in small hamlets and villages and probably often attracted many if not most of the residents. The framers determined that only an open court system could guarantee the freedoms they envisioned this new Constitution was to create.

Our courts can't accommodate the majority of residents of a community affected by a sensational trial. The medium of television would serve the interests of the public now. Most of our trials in this state do not attract the national media attention and might not even hold the attention of a TV audience. But televising trials would hold lawyers and judges to a higher standard of professionalism.

The public does not know that after every trial in this state the lawyers are provided a survey to grade the conduct and demeanor of the trial judge. We fill out the forms anonymously and return them to the Judicial Branch with no real certainty that anyone takes them seriously. Why not let the public judge our judges, or at least have the opportunity to form an opinion whether someone belongs on the bench when it is time to consider reappointment.

As for lawyers, people should see what we are made of in the courtroom. When I started practicing with my Dad 32 years ago, there was no lawyer advertising, no full color Yellow Pages ads or billboards screaming, "Hire me -- I'm the best." People chose litigators largely by word of mouth and referral from the family lawyer. Reputations as trial lawyers were earned in the crucible of the courtroom. Now it is often a question not of ability but the size of a firm's advertising budget that places certain lawyers at the forefront.

Let people see us in action and judge for themselves. In the nearly two years that I have been watching Court TV carefully, I have yet to see a trial -- civil or criminal -- in which the lawyers were preening for the cameras. Juror identities are kept from the camera and judges can control whether the face of a witness and that person's voice should be identifiable. The dignity of victims and the rights of the accused are matters requiring great deference.

Last year, this state held its first execution in more than four decades. The number of capital prosecutions is increasing. Let the public understand the magnitude of certain crimes. In particular, sentencings should be broadcast. I brought my son's junior high class to court where they watched a teenager sentenced to three years in prison on a drug charge. The click of the handcuffs as that youngster was taken into custody was a dramatic message to these kids about the consequences of drug use.

This is why those farmers added the Sixth Amendment. It truly should be the people's court.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Website, and Blog,

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