Celebrity Justice, the System, and the Armchair Jurist

Lawyers and judges in the courtrooms of Los Angeles, and in my hometown of Las Vegas, have had quite a run in the news lately.

I’m an attorney with a thriving private practice, but it’s not my civil litigation clients that have me standing outside courthouses in the pre-dawn hours to provide commentary and analysis. It is the parade of celebrities — O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, David Copperfield — all defending themselves against, or awaiting, criminal charges.

Whether it’s a celebrity being processed through the criminal justice system (O.J., Michael Jackson, Robert Blake), or a previously anonymous citizen who has been accused of a crime so heinous that the crime itself becomes the celebrity (accused internet pedophile Chester Stiles), Americans have become fascinated with following the cases and analyzing the outcomes of what I call “celebrity justice”—cases such as Laci Peterson's murder, Natalee Holloway's disappearance, the unsolved murder of Jon Benet Ramsey. These cases make headlines as they unravel in front of a fascinated TV audience, instantly recognizable by the name of the victim or the accused.

I have been covering celebrity court cases since 1995. More than 10 years ago, former football great O.J. Simpson was in a courtroom defending himself against a double homicide charge. And for the first time in history, so were television cameras. The public was able to watch — inside the courtroom — as hearings were held, evidence was presented, and closing arguments were made.

The viewing public was captivated. For anyone infatuated with crime stories, a whole new dimension had just been added to the classic “who done it.” For millions of Americans, the courtroom was now in their living room. And, in my opinion, the impact on those watching and on the system has been positive.

These cases are a microcosm of things that happen every day in our legal system. Allegations of murder, armed robbery, sexual assault and kidnapping are presented in courtrooms around the country every day. And while these daily cases don’t always make the national news, when they do, you can be sure that people tune in. For whatever reason these individuals may begin watching — because they identify with the victim or with the accused, or out of a sense of curiosity fueled by gossip and tabloid-style headlines — along the way they learn quite a bit about our legal system. And there is a lot to be learned.

The law is complex at best and erudite at worst. Admittedly, there are aspects of the law that are generally so dull, the only people who can force themselves to pay attention are first-year law students cramming for exams. Take probate law, for instance: the average citizen is unlikely to be interested in the disposition of an estate or the veracity of a will. But if it’s the multi-million dollar estate of a former playboy model, dead under mysterious and tragic circumstances, the level of interest rises exponentially. The next thing you know, your elderly uncle is discussing the finer points of guardian ad litem and intestacy over dinner.

As a practicing lawyer, I am well aware that an educated client is a client who will get the most out of the system. These types of dramatic cases that combine the allure of celebrity with the scrutiny of popular media allow the average citizen to attend a virtual academic seminar on the nuances of criminal and civil law from the comfort of their sofa. The average citizen can have access to knowledgeable commentary by experts who can illuminate and enlighten.

And it’s not just the armchair observer that comes away from a TV trial with a new depth of knowledge of the law. As an attorney and an analyst, I’ve often appreciated the opportunity to see the best of the profession at work. I have seen some very good lawyers try very intricate cases and have learned from them all.

I’m also in favor of the openness that occurs when cameras are allowed in courtrooms. In this country the legal system is meant to provide fair and equal benefit to all citizens. Cameras in the courtroom portray accurate, real-time depictions of what is going on in the system and help to dispel the largely inaccurate image of the courtroom as a meeting place for a fraternal club of lawyers and judges who make collusive deals and mete out unjust punishments.

I believe that the 12 impaneled jurors, too, feel a responsibility to the watchful eye of a thirteenth, as the audience sitting at home holds the jurors accountable for deliberating as they are charged to do.

If there is a potential downside to this transparency, it is the hazard that the serious duties of judge and jury be viewed solely as entertainment. In high-profile criminal cases, lives literally hang in the balance. In some cases of celebrity justice, it would appear that there are lawyers and judges who are apparently star-struck, whether by their clients or by the media attention, and play to the cameras.

To some degree this is unsurprising. The qualities that make a great trial lawyer — persuasiveness, eloquence and a flair for the dramatic — also make for great television. On the other hand, judges that exhibit histrionics, or lose control of their courtroom, can damage their future careers on the bench and beyond. After all, our criminal legal system was created to promote an emotion-free, third-party process for determining innocence or guilt based on admissible evidence.

Of course, there are the judges and jurors and lawyers who secure book deals and exclusive interviews, reaping a financial windfall from their participation in these high-profile cases. But with the intense media focus that is a part of a celebrity court case, the behavior of these professionals is subject to as much scrutiny as the evidence against the accused, and they are often tried themselves in the court of public opinion.

People can watch courtroom drama unfolding around the clock. They learn about extradition, parole, due cause to trial, how a jury is picked, how a case is presented, which evidence is allowed and not allowed. I believe this exposure to the legal system is a benefit to the public — and in the end a benefit to me and other lawyers. I have always been in favor of education and knowledge. I contend that a client who knows the system will get the most out of the time that they spend with me and that I spend on their case.

No matter what arguments are made for or against the sensationalizing of legal proceedings, the phenomenon of “celebrity justice” has opened the doors of the courtroom wide and allowed the transparency intended for our legal system.

Robert Massi has been a Fox News legal analyst covering high-profile court cases since 1998. He is the author of "People Get Screwed All the Time: Protecting Yoursel from Scams, Fraud, Identity Theft, Fine Print, and More" (Collins Books 2007), and the host of a popular Las Vegas radio show that focuses on everyday legal issues. He is a lawyer in private practice and is the founder of The Conscience of America, an organization dedicated to improving the way citizens are treated by the legal system.