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Sunshine and Judge Seidlin

In 1933, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis advised, "Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant." True to this notion, Florida is known as the Sunshine State not only for its weather -- it has long been a leader in open government. But when it comes to cameras in the courtroom, does openness serve an injustice?

After watching Judge Larry Seidlin's on-camera antics in the Anna Nicole Smith proceedings, Norm Pattis thinks so. At his blog Crime & Federalism, he says Seidlin singlehandedly rests the case against cameras in the courtroom. "The judge sniveled and emoted like a pro se in traffic court for the cameras today, when he gave the lifeless body of Anna Nicole Smith to the lawyer for her five-year-old daughter."

Pattis is not alone in the belief that Seidlin played to the cameras. The Miami Herald called the judge "something of a national spectacle." The Associated Press described him as "showboating for the cameras." CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said he let the case meander, "mostly because he seems to enjoy being on television." Any doubts about Seidlin's soft spot for TV were erased when it was reported that he had a demo tape and hoped to audition for his own series. Sure enough, it was revealed over the weekend that CBS offered Seidlin a gig as host of a new Saturday morning feature. (No, not a cartoon.)

Pattis acknowledges that cameras in the courtroom can play an important role  in public education. "But how do we prevent cameras from influencing the proceedings?" he asks, adding, "Does anything go in the Sunshine State?"

Focusing blame on cameras was inevitable, says Mark Obbie at LawBeat.  But to view cameras as the problem is to get it "exactly wrong," he argues.

"[W]e should rejoice in what Florida's open-courts law gave us in this case: a full-on view of the kinds of idiots who can make it onto the bench, even in sizable metropolitan areas like Fort Lauderdale. Seidlin didn't know the difference between 'anecdote' and 'antidote.' But his voters now know the difference between competence and incompetence."

At Bench Conference, Andrew Cohen argues that Seidlin's performance was so unseemly and inappropriate "that the Florida bar ought to immediately launch an investigation into whether he is truly fit to determine the rights and liberties of others." It is probably Florida's Judicial Qualification Commission, not the bar, that should take this up, but that is beside the point. Obbie is right: Cameras should not be on trial -- the judge should be. This man has been on the bench for 29 years. If he is investigated and if he is found to be unqualified, we have cameras to thank, not blame. When sunlight illuminates misconduct, our response should not be to close the blinds.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on February 26, 2007 at 05:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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