The once camera-shy state supreme court agreed Tuesday in a 5-2 decision to let commercial television tape the deliberations of a civil jury. Like any experiment, this one contains an element of risk. But if past experience is a guide to future performance, it was a good call by the court.
CBS wants to put together a documentary, and solicited courts in Maine and Arizona for access to a courtroom, which could have up to five cameras, and a jury room, where two video cameras would be hidden.
The ground rules are sound. All parties to the case, which most likely will be tried in the Portland courtroom of Judge Carl Bradford, will have to sign off on the project — plaintiff and defendant, jurors and lawyers. The cameras will be tucked away, but the project won’t be a secret.
The two dissenters on the Maine bench (Arizona’s high court hasn’t announced its decision) argued that tying the willingness to go on camera to selection for jury service could distort the deliberative process and the decision.
It’s a good point, and the architects of the experiment are forewarned. The hidden presence of a camera lens might magnify human nature — more aggressive and outspoken jurors playing comfortably to the videotape, while the reticent withdraw. The network says shyness evaporates and posturing, dress and other affectations disappear when jurors realize the serious nature of their business. But the burden here is on the judge to monitor behavior and to pull the plug on taping if there are signs it is overwhelming the process.
This decision sets a precedent. It provides commercial TV with a peek into an area that has been off limits. Mainers will have the first direct look into the heart of their system of justice.
Done right, like previous successful efforts to put cameras in the courtroom, the jury taping will demystify the process of justice without stripping it of its dignity, and shine sunlight on the process without casting a shadow on its fairness and deliberations.
The experiment will be a test of the jury, the medium and the system.