Lights, Camera, Inaction

The Prop 8 trial shows that federal courts need more, not less, sunshine

by Sean Bugg
Published on January 14, 2010, 2:26am | Comments

We are a nation that likes to watch, be it hundreds of cable channels filled with talking heads, YouTube videos of cute kids and keyboard cats, or the burgeoning content of our DVRs and Slingboxes. Video cameras reside in our phones, sit on neighborhood windowsills and peer from the tops of our computer screens.

If it's not on video, it almost seems it hasn't happened.

But while the world may be moving toward video saturation, not everyone's with the program. The Supreme Court, Washington's most famous camera-free zone, on Monday blocked the delayed webcast of the Proposition 8 trial currently underway in a federal court in California. As of this writing, any broadcast is still blocked, although the issue will be revisited by late Wednesday, Jan. 13.

Supporters of Proposition 8 had raised a stink about the prospect of cameras in the courtroom, claiming that fear of intimidation, harassment and attack would lead their witnesses to withdraw. Of course, given hate-crime statistics for LGBT people in this country, we all know who has more to fear from harassment and attack.

Despite the canard of witness intimidation, what Prop 8 proponents seem most concerned with is exposing their arguments to the sunshine of public display. From day one, their arguments have been weak and their questions hectoring, as shown in Lisa Keen's daily coverage of the trial at MetroWeekly.com. Ted Olson, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs seeking to overturn Prop 8 and a legendary conservative, has made an impressive case for why marriage equality is fundamental for treating gay and lesbian citizens equally under the law.

Given the tone of the opening days, it's reasonable to assume that a wide broadcast would only exacerbate the problem of Prop 8 supporters.

Obviously, the Supreme Court takes a paternalistic approach to the issue — the court believes that television cameras would cheapen the institution and make it susceptible to grandstanding lawyers and circus-like atmospheres, things that us rowdy, gullible citizens must be shielded from. Never mind that the camera ban means that most Americans get their understanding of the judicial branch from Judge Judy and Law & Order — decorum must be protected.

It's not unexpected that the Supreme Court would rule to block cameras. But if nothing else, the Prop 8 trial has highlighted the technological gap between the judicial branch and the citizens who have to live by its decisions.

Perhaps in the days when TV was a special event and video cameras a bulky intrusion into any proceeding, these policies made sense. But now that everyone essentially can broadcast themselves across the world at any time, the shyness of the Supreme Court seems less quaint and more antiquated. It's time to catch the courts up to the country.

As for those who claim that it's odd or iffy to start such an ''experiment'' with a high-profile case such as the Prop 8 trial, why on earth should it be odd to move forward by broadcasting a court proceeding that people actually show interest in? Same-sex marriage happens to be one of the most polarizing and contentious issues on today's political scene. Given the anger and joy that any Prop 8 trial decision will inevitably generate, it would seem important to give citizens as clear a view of the proceedings as possible.

While it's untrue that video never lies, it does provide another important element for those who seek the truth.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to block broadcast of the Proposition 8 trial. Read Christopher Geidner's story here. You can reach Sean Bugg at sbugg@metroweekly.com.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace