I'm writing this for all those who watch the increasingly popular television courtroom shows. I haven't heard any real discussion over the propriety of these shows. I think some is needed.
The "Jerry Springer," "Ricki Lake," and "Jenny Jones" shows, and some of their reality-based progeny, such as "Temptation Island," have turned pain into entertainment. On all these shows people reveal the most dreadful things about each other, and can also be physically abusive, all before a cheering and jeering studio audience. The poor and the pitiful, the inarticulate and the illiterate are put on display at a condescending distance. As long as the networks can attract viewers, the ratings will soar and the money will pour in. Yet as dreadful as these shows are, I don't believe most people take them seriously. Or at least I hope not.
When it comes to TV courtroom shows, some of the same dreadful scenarios are played out. But because the sets are dressed to look like courts of law and are presided over by lawyers in black robes who at least used to be judges, and involve people who have agreed by contract to have their real court cases settled on television, people tend to take these shows very seriously. As they should. But this poses some serious problems.
Why? Because many of the litigants on the shows, and some of the judges, hurl around crass, cynical, and demeaning comments. Foul language and insults are spewed and endured without so much as a blush. This is not dignified, and it smacks of partiality.
What TV courtroom shows pass off as justice is not the painstaking consideration of the facts of a problem and its solutions - a process that occurs daily in real courts. Instead, the emphasis is too often on the lurid details of people's lives. Some of the shows border on burlesque. Angry litigants stomp around, yelling and fuming and whetting our appetite for low-brow comedy and drama full of tragic possibilities and unbelievable subplots, as war is fought over unpaid debts, paternity, and personal injury. Justice and due process are secondary. A fun time is the goal.
Bizarre scenes are also played out every day in real courts of law around the country by the criminal, the mentally ill, the emotionally devastated, and those ripped apart by anger and resentment. However, the kind of trumped-up human horror made famous by the Springer, Lake, and Jones shows has no place in American courtrooms. Courtrooms must be places of order and decorum, places where justice is meted out. Judges must preserve this environment, lest the public comes to see the courts as an uncaring and ineffectual circus, not to mention an entertainment bonanza.
I count nine courtroom shows on the air today. I won't name the bad ones; that would not be judicious. But they generally have names like "Judge So and So" or "Such and Such Court." A few are all right, such as Judge Glenda Hatchett's. Judge Hatchett is respectful, reverent, stable, moderate, and able to find and apply the law. She also seems more than willing to find long-term solutions to the problems facing the folks appearing before her. But, sadly, far too many courtroom shows aren't as responsible as Glenda Hatchett's.
Early on, judges are taught that the process is almost as important as the result. That is, a party can lose a case but still accept the outcome if they think the process was fair. If that is the case, I have good reason to worry. Because if TV court is what Americans are seeing and hearing, many may lose confidence in our courts.
Don't get me wrong. I do believe that networks are free to create and air them. People are also free to take their disputes out of real courts to TV courts, and other people are free to watch the fireworks that ensue. I also believe that, generally, public scrutiny of the courts is fundamental to a free society and to our respect for law.
Televising real courtroom proceedings, where appropriate, furthers this objective. But because there are too many Americans who can get a lasting impression of the law and the courts from what they see on television - and because I suspect that few Americans would be as interested in the goings-on of a real courtroom as in those of the sensationalized shows - I also believe warnings are appropriate.
That is what this is: a warning. We must guard the avenues to our hearts and minds. What we value reveals a lot about who we are. If these shows are part of our popular culture, perhaps we need to take a critical look at ourselves.
TV networks can fashion more realistic and respectable TV courtroom programs. And we can demand that they do.
My prayer is for the courtroom shows, if they must continue, to reach that pinnacle so that Americans will maintain their respect for the judicial process.
Leah Ward Sears is a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor