Make Courts More Transparent or the Puppets Will Win

I hate puppets and you should too. Here’s why:

Puppets are silly. Puppets are trivial little distractions, designed to amuse. In short, puppets are for child’s play. Nothing terribly vile there, but such things are the antithesis of what our legal system is about – important, frequently life-altering matters as well as critical issues of public policy. And because the legal system lags behind the public’s expectation of transparency, puppets are now being used to showcase the law. I kid you not.

The case that gives rise to my screed originates out of Ohio. According to a recent Wall Street Journal story, the trial in question was one of the highest profile corruption trials in Ohio’s history, and involved Jimmy Dimora, the former Cuyahoga County, Ohio Commissioner who has now been convicted of racketeering, bribery, conspiracy, tax charges, and other crimes.

Because of the keen public interest in the trial, a local TV station found itself wrestling with how to visually present the case to its viewers in light of the US federal court ban on cameras in the courtroom. It was Aristotle who first theorized that nature abhors a vaccum, and it would seem the media does too. The traditional approach used to visualize court proceedings has been to use sketch artists. But in an interactive and media-saturated world, sketch artists are a historical artifact, a legacy of a time before the 500-channel tv universe, always-on, always-connected, smartphone-as-personal-appendage lifestyle became standard operating procedure for most of us. The simple reality is sketch artist renderings no longer capture or satisfy the public’s interest. So the TV station sought something more. And what they came up with was. . . puppets. An array of puppets in fact, acting out the day’s events in court, with Nutty the Squirrel moderating as news anchor, providing a one-minute summary of the day’s key testimony. “Puppets Court”. The wall street journal story described it as a cross between the Sopranos and the Muppets. It is as every bit as ingenious as it is awful.

Naturally, in a world where fake news broadcasters Jon Daily and Stephen Colbert command larger audiences and frequently more respect than their hoary mainstream news counterparts, “Puppets Court” has been a smash hit, with the station reporting a strong spike in viewership. “The sales guys are doing cartwheels” reports Dan Salamone, the station’s news director.

Back here in Canada, we too are wrestling with issues of cameras in the courtoom, as well as how to manage social media usage by various parties and stakeholders including juries, lawyers, accredited and non-accredited media and others. Recently, the provincial Liberal government of B.C. Premier Christie Clark was thwarted in its plan (originally announced in a throne speech) to have all courtroom proceedings arising out of Vancouver’s Stanley Cup Riot televised. When the judge in the first riot-related sentencing case denied the government motion it caused the provincial government to back away from the “RiotTV” plan, which had met considerable resistance from various parties including the government’s own prosecutors, as well as critics questioning why an administration insistent that there’s no more money left in the kitty for justice administration was marshaling precious resources in this manner.

I should clarify at this stage that I am no fan of the notion of televised trials. I was particularly appalled at the blatant political gamesmanship represented by the “RiotTV” notion. If cameras are to come at all, they should be the result of a thoughtful, well-considered policy of broad application, not because the government of the day happens to think a particular case or group of cases would make for politically expedient soundbites. In general terms, I no doubt share the views of many of you that the risks posed by televising court proceedings – risks to prosecutors, to court staff, to witnesses and to how the presence of cameras affects the evidence and conduct of the parties involved – are very real and warrant significant weight when evaluating how to proceed.

But I also know that where we are today is not good enough. The public is demanding greater openness about what goes on in courtrooms across the country, and approaches like falling back on sketch artists and smug assertions that the courtrooms are open to attend in person no longer suffice.

There are a wide variety of technology tools that can provide greater public insight on how the legal system works. See for example, a fascinating multimedia page on the US Supreme Court’s review of Obama’s healthcare legislation. West Coast Environmental Law also demonstrated a novel approach to public awareness building with their recent inaugural twitter moot, and I personally believe social media, despite its challenges, can and will play an important role in making the legal system more open over time.

I certainly don’t have all the answers for how we can get to a more accessible, more transparent legal system that provides greater public confidence in the administration of justice. I just know that our collective failure to act will result in a vaccum. And as we now know, where there is a vaccum in the legal system, you run the risk of hearing your words as counsel being mouthed on the evening news by Nutty the Squirrel – and none of us wants to see that.

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