Florida election case proved value of cameras in the courtroom

Tuesday, December 26, 2000

Like Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin after leaving a
laboratory window open, we found the antidote to O.J. in the most unlikely

Many wondered after the circus of the Simpson murder trial whether
we’d ever recover from the blow that case struck against cameras in the
courtroom. Sure, cameras and courtrooms could co-exist in sleepy cases far
outside the public interest. But in high-profile cases? No way. Too much
distraction, too much chaos, too much temptation. Artists’ sketches would
have to do.

Out of the voting machines of Florida, however, came another chance, a
case with the highest of profiles. The distractions, the chaos and the
temptations were manifold, but the issues were serious. And, because of the
cameras in Florida’s courtrooms, we were able to watch as serious people
tried to resolve them.

Commentators and historians likely will spend decades identifying and
re-identifying the winners and losers in the recent battle for Florida’s
25 electoral votes. From all perspectives, though, one clear winner was the
First Amendment right of access to the courts.

Never before have so many members of the public been so interested in
so complicated a judicial process. State courts and federal courts. Trial
courts and supreme courts. Motions, emergency appeals and federal questions. We
followed it day by day, hour by hour, decision by decision. The experts and
even some of the pundits were helpful, but nothing could adequately replace the
opportunity to watch the arguments ourselves.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court bowed to the public interest, at least a
little. Calls for televising the historic hearings were summarily rejected, but
the justices agreed to release audiotapes of the arguments almost immediately
after the proceedings had concluded. Radio stations played the tapes in their
entirety; their television counterparts played long excerpts, supplemented with
the familiar artists’ sketches. People who before the election
couldn’t have named one justice now could name all nine, as well as each
justice’s political leanings.

As divisive as this electoral contest was, the openness of the
courtrooms produced the common understanding necessary for the wounds to begin
to heal. We may not have agreed with every ruling, but we’d seen the
process that provided each side with ample opportunity to present its case.
We’d eyeballed the judges and tried to understand their perspectives and
biases. No matter which side we were on, we understood that the questions
weren’t easy. When it was over, we knew therefore — despite the
rhetoric — that the election had been neither stolen nor bought.

The openness of the courtrooms in this case also provides considerable
hope that courtrooms in future cases will be more accessible to the public.
Trial judges across the country now have seen that cameras — even when
used in courtrooms packed with lawyers — do not necessarily disrupt
proceedings. Instead, cameras educate the public, build faith in the judiciary
and allow citizens an unfiltered view of important legal arguments.

We also have reason to hope for more regular use of same-day Supreme
Court audiotapes. Having seen the benefits of the tapes in this case, no
logical basis exists for the court to deny same-day tapes in future cases.
While some of the justices likely were concerned that the quick release of the
tapes would somehow shake the foundation of the court and the nation, their
concerns clearly were misplaced. Instead, the tapes provided insight into the
parties’ arguments and the court’s ultimate decisions
(notwithstanding the painful attempts by television reporters to read and
interpret those decisions live).

The 2000 election undoubtedly will be remembered for many things. One
of them, fortunately, should be the very public demonstration that cameras in
courtrooms inform, educate and enlighten. Hopefully, another will be that this
demonstration inspired a renewed commitment to openness in America’s

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