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TV in the Courtroom

THE traditional figure representing Justice still wears a blindfold, but for the rest of us American justice is being dispensed in increasingly plain view.Forty-four states permit television coverage of trials in state courts, and clips of dramatic courtroom moments are standard fare on the 10 o'clock news. Now the federal courts are offering a televised peek at their proceedings. In a a three-year experiment launched July 1, TV coverage of civil (but not criminal) trials in federal courts is allowed in six cities. It may be only a matter of time until press videocams can record all federal trials - and, for that matter, arguments in the Supreme Court. A far more ambitious experiment in teletrials also commenced July 1. A new cable channel, Courtroom Television Network (a k a Court TV), began round-the-clock coverage of the adversary process. During weekdays, Court TV will offer live coverage of two or three trials chosen for their headline-grabbing interest (the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Palm Beach, for example), and nighttime and weekend hours will be filled with taped highlights and commentary by legal experts. Time will tell if Court TV finds a market niche large enough to sustain it. Real trials aren't the slam-bam contests of such TV dramas as "L.A. Law." Some lawyers and commentators worry that all this exposure will skew the trial process, changing the way participants behave and tainting juror pools. Certainly these concerns merit careful monitoring. To date, though, studies have found no adverse consequences. On the other side, there may well be public benefits from the TV coverage. The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a "speedy and public trial." Trials are open not just for the entertainment or even edification of the spectators, but as a check on abuses of the system by lawyers, judges, or jurors. In a TV age, the "public" necessarily includes the viewing public.

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