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Editorial Advisory Board: The folly of ‘Protection Court’

On May 6, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Judge Carroll Kelly of the 11th Judicial Circuit with “len[ding] the prestige of your judicial office to advance the private interests of yourself and others” after the judge agreed to allow a television show known as “Protection Court” to film in the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court domestic violence division.

The show filmed actual litigants, gave those litigants “minimal notice” of the waivers that they would be asked to sign, and filmed litigants who did not consent to participate in the show.  Kelly allegedly claimed that she had final approval of what would air, which the commission has called a misrepresentation.  Disciplinary proceedings against Judge Kelly are pending.

The American appetite for entertainment featuring the law, particularly the criminal legal system, seems endless.  Fictionalized television shows set in police precincts, district attorneys’ offices, and private law firms have long been a staple of television programming.

“Law and Order” has aired for 30 years, spawning spinoffs upon spinoffs.  Whole networks like Investigation Discovery exist to tell “true crime” stories in shows like “My Family’s Deadly Secret,” “Homicide Hunter” and “Reasonable Doubt.”  The podcast “Serial” featured a reinvestigation of the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in its first season and returned to court in its third season to document the day-to-day operations of the criminal court in Cleveland.

Increasing public awareness of the criminal legal system has benefits. Well-informed citizens make better jurors. Understanding how the criminal legal system works could inspire members of the public to pay closer attention to the elections of judges and state’s attorneys.

Such information can also create support for essential criminal system reforms. That kind of education can happen through broadcasting court proceedings.

But shows like “Protection Court” don’t serve this function. Instead, they sensationalize court proceedings and create incentives for judges and others in the system to play to the cameras. These shows edit to create drama and can be misleading in ways that have implications for victims, those who are accused of crimes, and the larger community.

They often valorize police and prosecutors and feature little of the evidence offered by defendants during trial or in mitigation.  They make entertainment out of some of the most traumatic experiences of the lives of those involved.

The criminal defendants featured in these shows face an especially problematic catch-22: participate and jeopardize pending claims (including post-conviction and parole), decline and have the story told from the prosecution’s perspective, knowing that friends, neighbors, and community members might all be watching and could have their view of the case shaped by the program’s narrative.

It’s not surprising that the public is hooked on law-related programming — legal proceedings are often fascinating, involving compelling facts and characters. But such shows make it easy to forget that these “characters” are real people involved in a process that has profound implications for their safety, their well-being, even their freedom.

The Maryland courts will certainly have opportunities to participate in shows like “Protection Court.”  Knowing how problematic these shows can be, the judiciary should be very careful about opening its courtrooms to those who are looking to entertain rather than educate.

Editorial Advisory Board members James B. Astrachan, James K. Archibald, Arthur F. Fergenson, Stephen Z. Meehan, Debra G. Schubert and H. Mark Stichel did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

James Haynes

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.