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Cameras Belong in Court

Last week, millions of Americans were surprised by the Michael Jackson “not guilty” verdicts. But most journalists who covered it weren't, and when jurors were asked to react to the apparent disconnect between themselves and half of the country, a number of them essentially said, “Look, they didn't see what we saw. They didn't hear what we heard.”

That's exactly our point. We have called for allowing TV cameras in all courtrooms since the early 1980s when videotaping became routine in Florida courtrooms and elsewhere.

It's Henry Schleiff's point, too. Schleiff, the chief executive of Court TV, has arguably the clearest self-interest in opening up the courts. That also makes him one of the most passionate spokesmen for the cause. But he is joined by journalists across the country who resent being micromanaged by any branch of government.

“The viewers' ability to see and hear the testimony makes a decision far more understandable,” says Schleiff. Not only that, but witnessing how the judicial system makes its particular brand of sausage is a constitutional right.

Only after the trial did the public learn that many jurors believe, indeed, that Jackson has abused children but the state didn't prove its case. Had viewers seen the case unfold day after day, they might have understood sooner the subtle but vital protection afforded by the phrase “reasonable doubt.” These jurors had that doubt.

The last time we looked, the Sixth Amendment still requires a “public” trial. When the public traveled by horse and buggy to the courthouse, the limit was the number of seats in the courtroom. But TV and radio have long since removed that limitation, giving us the ability to extend that right to anyone with a TV set. (Similarly, after years of resistance, Congress finally let TV in, through C-SPAN, in 1979.)

We have nothing against sketch artists, but if there is anything more ludicrous than limiting our view of court proceedings to high-definition TV images of pastel drawings, let us know.

Critics argue that cameras turn the courtroom into a media circus, citing the O.J. Simpson trial, but as Schleiff points out, that was more an issue of the judge's control of the court. Banning cameras can turn trials into an even bigger circus. Case in point: the media outlets that produced hokey re-enactments with actor stand-ins and used countless talking-head legal surrogates.

The bottom line is, the Jackson trial could have been instructive, not just theater of the absurd. Last week, three days after the Jackson verdict, the New York State Court of Appeals decided not to overturn a 1952 law banning cameras and said the issue was for the state's legislature to decide, not the judicial branch. It was a ray of hope for the future. But by now, cameras should be allowed in federal criminal courts, all federal appeals courts, and in those 11 states that continue to bar them from trial courts.

Most important, the Supreme Court should open itself to cameras. The nation's highest court makes decisions that can affect all of us in dramatic and fundamental ways, from identifying when life begins to who will occupy the White House.

Lady Justice may be blindfolded. But in the 21st century, the public should not be.