In this era of demands for hyper "transparency" (which is sometimes warranted and sometimes a tortured justification for voyeurism), the Supreme Court remains steadfastly opposed to having cameras in the courtroom during oral arguments. It may seem anachronistic or arrogant or even just silly. But this week, the high court got its best argument ever for keeping cameras out of the courtroom: Don West, the lawyer defending George Zimmerman, the man accused of the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin.
West started his opening arguments with a story about his personal upbringing (and then stopped after the judge sustained a prosecution objection). Then – after asking the jury not to hold it against his client – West did the unfathomable. He told a knock-knock joke. Said West to an apparently incredulous jury:
George Zimmerman who?
Ah, good. You're on the jury.
When no one laughed (it's a murder trial, Mr. West – perhaps not the time or place to try out your stand-up?), West looked faux-injured. "Nothing?" he asked the courtroom, eliciting a few uncomfortable chuckles. "That's funny."
No, not really. Not only was it not such a great idea to insult the jury by suggesting they were the only ones clueless enough never to have heard of Zimmerman but it betrayed the solemnity and the seriousness of the situation. It was a bad move, and it begs the question: Would West have tried such a performance if there had been no cameras there to broadcast it to the world?
There's always a little performance art in dealing with a jury, with lawyers trying to appear trustworthy and authoritative and seeking to make some kind of connection with the jury. But the drama goes to another level when the theater grows from courtroom-sized to the whole world – or at least the whole world where people have televisions or computers.
The presence of a camera changes a person's behavior. Sometimes, they clam up, (smartly) aware anything they say will be parsed and potentially misinterpreted. Sometimes, they get on a soapbox – as congressmen tend to do during televised hearings or legislative negotiations – and then find it hard to go ahead with any kind of compromise without looking weak. This doesn't mean everything should be done in secret. It does mean that even public events need not be televised.
Lower-level courts, sadly, have taken on a "Real World" quality as lawyers blur the lines between TV dramas and real life. We should be glad the Supreme Court has rejected it.
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