Social Media, Cameras, and the Courts

Posted by Richard Lawson | Mar 08, 2016 | 0 Comments

It has been 26 years since the introduction of the Internet, and the new phenomenon of social media is all everyone ever seems to talk about. It was to no one's surprise when thousands big companies like Target, FOX News, and Time Magazine jumped on the social media bandwagon. The relatively free online viewership is an excellent tool for inexpensive marketing and public relations. What was astonishing, was when many high-level courts entered into the social media realm; making the court systems more adaptable to the times than my parents. States such as Indiana, Arizona, and Georgia have all resorted to the user-friendly forums to broadcast upcoming events and news involving their jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of the United States also has a Twitter feed and an even more notable presence on their SCOTUS blog.

Is Having More Attention on the Courts Better or Worse?

So what does this do to our legal system? It's arguably beneficial to have such public attention to our courts. The right to a public and speedy trial, vested in the 6th Amendment, was based on the assumption that the public is here to hold the courts accountable. I like to think that the advancement of social media and the courts are a mere representation that the courts embrace that philosophy. Courts are willing to air their rulings out for public scrutiny and debate. The movement towards the courts' public attention catapulted with the use of the internet and social media.

The flip side of this coin is that privacy of the court can offer judges a measure of control. If the public is always involved in court matters, who is making the ruling: judges or the masses? Whose hands do we want to put the discretion of the court in? Judges are reluctant to broadcast their opinions to the public for fear of public scrutiny and outcry. If every ruling judges made were left to the public to scrutinize and demonize, we could end up with a system of judges who are fearful of using their own experience, knowledge, and education to take the best position.

Who is More Reluctant to Have Camera's in Court Rooms: Judges or Defendants?

Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias was the recipient of a lot of grief last week for his statements that cameras should be welcome in every court room. Nahmias went so far as to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to take note that Georgia's use of cameras in the courtroom has been introduced without any adverse effects. While I agree the court may face the courtesy of no negative impact, I fear defendants may not be awarded that same gratification.

High profile cases, such as Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson, were defendants proven innocent by a 12-person jury but guilty by the general population. These defendants were left to fend for themselves to the public hate and cruelty beyond the courtroom due to their publicity. Am I saying their antagonistic roles in American society aren't deserved? No. However, I will recognize the possibility that it is not. Cases are dismissed, and people are acquitted of crimes all of the time. I find the public's ability to impart their social sanctions to be the second sentencing in our system when mass media is involved. Many times innocent people are never left alone because of social media pressure. 

Who can also forget Georgia “Judge” Richard A. Diment (Bowdon GA Municipal Court) who routinely threatened to jail indigent and mentally ill persons who could not pay their fines.  He was only stopped because someone surreptitiously videoed his court proceedings.  His corrupt and vile behavior would not have been exposed without the advent of cameras and social media.  Here is a short video of the shakedown of the poor in a Georgia courtroom.  It's a scene out of a 17th Century Debtors prison, right down to demands that defendants who cannot pay ask friends or relatives to pay for them. See Video here.

Overall I think the public's desire for accountability over the court system far outweighs any negative impact it could have. The framers of our Constitution engraved the necessity for public trial because they feared the inverse could be far worse for our legal system. I have complete faith in the public having a positive impact on the legal system.  

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Richard Lawson

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