De-shrouding the law

The time has come to demystify the US legal system. Perhaps this could be a priority goal for the coming 1987 bicentennial of the writing of the Constitution. The idea would be to make Americans better informed about individual rights and protections and to bring more credibility to the system.

The situation appears to be serious. A nationwide survey on public perceptions of the legal system conducted last year by the Hearst Corporation indicated serious misconceptions. For instance, nearly half of those interviewed believed that, in a criminal trial, it is up to the accused to prove his or her innocence. The Constitution, of course, puts the burden of proof on the prosecution. A basic underpinning of the American judicial system is the presumption that a person is innocent until found guilty.

The Hearst survey also indicated that, of the three branches of government, the public knew much more about the executive and the legislative than about the judicial. Thirty-eight percent couldn't identify Warren E. Burger as chief justice of the United States. More than 40 percent had no idea who the other Supreme Court justices were.

Sadly, other public opinion surveys, including some conducted by legal groups , have arrived at similar conclusions.

Significantly, the public gets most of its information about the law from the media. And ironically, the credibility of the press is low - about equal to that of lawyers and judges. Chief Justice Burger jokes, but not flippantly, that neither wants to associate with the other.

What can be done?

A panel of lawyers, judges, public officials, and journalists met recently during American Bar Association conclaves in Las Vegas, Nev., to address the problem. Among other things, they recommended:

* Clearer and more concise opinions from the bench - understandable to the layman.

* More media access to judges and court officers.

* Education at all levels about individual rights and responsibilities.

* Greater press attention to explaining the law and less emphasis on the sensational aspects of trials and criminal behavior.

Some of these things are already being done. Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson, who strongly urges fellow judges to drop the jargon from their rulings - says she regularly explains legal procedures to reporters. (All judges are legally barred from talking about specifics of an ongoing trial.) Chief Justice Noel Manoukian of the Nevada Supreme Court sometimes sends out information to the media to correct misimpressions about a legal proceeding.

The media are also pitching in through television programs such as ''Miller's Court,'' which presents mock trials; newspaper features on key legal and constitutional questions; press notices about legal clinics and lectures on citizens' rights; and columns answering questions about the courts.

One volunteer legal services group in Newark, N.J., operates a 24-hour telephone hot line offering information on everything from welfare rights to privacy protections. Elsewhere around the nation there are similar community-based programs for students, homeowners, tenants, and senior citizens.

Much more information, however, is needed. A national consortium of lawyers, judges, and the media could well be formed to start a nationwide information campaign on legal affairs as well as on individual constitutional rights and responsibilities. An often cynical public might just be willing to listen, if the message is credible. Even the courts and the media deserve to be presumed innocent until proved otherwise.

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