Lights, Cameras...Self-Consciousness?

Gavel_iStock_000015518511XSmall1A pilot program announced by the Illinois Supreme Court recently will allow some circuit court proceedings to be recorded.

Cameras in the courtroom, it would seem, would lead to transparency, allow those unfamiliar with the judicial process to learn what the real thing looks like (say, as opposed to Judge Judy), and overall enhance the appearance of fairness and justice with this new openness.

However, much as scientists have long noted that just the act of observing a human subject that knows it's being observed changes that subject's behavior, it is also very possible that cameras in the courtroom might do this to witnesses, judges, and lawyers. Ameet Sachdev's Chicago Law column in the Chicago Tribune highlighted one trial consultant's take on it.

Alexandra Rudolph, a Chicago trial consultant, points out that "(W)itnesses are much more self-conscious when there is a camera involved. They don't know whether to look at the judge, the jury, or the camera." She goes on to note that witnesses are often more stressed due to concern over how they look on camera, how fluently they speak, and seemingly "unimportant" details like that.

She also notes that jurors are affected by cameras even though they know they are not being recorded. "The camera takes on its own personality. Everybody is aware of it."

Certainly some attorneys are completely comfortable being "on stage," and it is not hard to imagine how the already-theatrical and over-the-top personality of a Sam Adam, Jr. would be perfectly suited to a televised courtroom proceeding. Most trials, however, are numbingly boring, confusing, repetitive, and generally do not feature the beautifully dressed and ultra attractive "television lawyers" populating shows like The Good Wife (prosecutors generally do not wear custom made $3,000.00 suits...but then again no one else does either!).

So while this "sunshine" makes a great deal of sense at first glance, it may turn out to either bore the daylights out of the viewers, or, more significantly, change the behavior of witnesses, judges, or lawyers. Many law firms, especially those that defend automobile negligence claims for "substandard" insurance companies, have actively sought attractive and well-dressed attorneys to serve as their trial lawyers. Many jurors and witnesses become fixated on the admittedly good looking lawyers that they tend to want to "help them out." This is something jurors have confided for years and those defense firms have changed the dynamic of trial. Certainly, cameras in the courtroom could be a great thing for the public at large, especially in high profile cases like the recent trials of former Governor Rod Blagojevich or Springfield Power Broker William Cellini, a trial that featured a juror who basically hid her criminal past. Would cameras have made her even less forthcoming or more so?

In my years as a lawyer, I've certainly seen and heard many interesting, incendiary, and sometimes downright funny things during court proceedings. It would take a sociologist to determine whether any of those moments would have occurred exactly as they did if the actors involved knew they were being watched, recorded, and filmed.

Soon, we'll get to find out.

Feel free to email me with your comments. I'd love to hear them!

Categories: General