YOU MAY RECALL the case in Florida last summer when the defense of a 15-year-old youth charged with murder was that he had become a television addict. He claimed that "prolonged, intense, involuntary, subliminal television intoxication" had influenced him so much that one particular episode of "Kojak" led him to kill an elderly neighbor. The case drew international publicity, largely because of that defense - but partly also because the trial itself was televised. The youth was convicted, of course, much to the relief of the network czars who are responsible for the violence fed regularly to their audiences. But television's victory didn't stop there. The quality of the coverage of that trial by the Miami stations seems to have broken much of the resistence to television in the courts.
Last week in New Orleans, the Conference of Chief Justices voted to remove from the Code of Judicial Conduct a bar against courtroom television; it can be permitted, they said, as long as the "dignity and decorum" of the proceedings are not disrupted. A day later, an American Bar Association committee released a proposed set of standards, which says that the mere presence of cameras in a courtroom is not inconsistent with a defendant's right to a fair trial. And the president of the bar association, William B. Spann, as well as Acting Deputy Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, have said they see no reason to continue to bar cameras from appellate courts.
This is a remarkable change from the attitude prevalent in legal circles not too many years ago. Much of the credit for this must go to those broadcasters in Miami. (We should tell you that one of our associated stations, WPLG-TV, was deeply involved in the litigation and negotiations that opened the courtroom.) But broadcasters elsewhere, in particular in Colorado and Alabama where limited access to the courts has been available, have also worked diligently to overcome the suspicions of the judges and lawyers.
What this means to the public is that before long it will be possible for all citizens, not just those who have the time to hang around courthouse corridors, to see how the courts actually operate. That, we believe, will be good for the courts and good for the public. Criminal trails are seldom like those you can watch on re-runs of "Perry Mason." A televised trial, or even an excerpt from a trial, is likely to do more to advance public understanding of the problems of the administration of justice than all the speeches that have been delivered by judges down through the years.
What we would like most to see in this city is the Supreme Court opening its doors to the television cameras. There is no better show in town than a hot argument between good lawyers before that bench. And there is no better way for the public to come to understand difficult constitutional issues than to listen to those arguments. We have often wondered whether the public reaction to the Court's school-desegregation decisions over the years would have been as violent if the lawyers' arguments that led up to them had been heard by millions of people, observing the court in action.
All of the traditional arguments against televising the work of the Supreme Court seem to us to have been overcome. The states are moving rapidly in the direction of letting cameras into local courts. The Supreme Court could set the pace - and develop the standards of behavior necessary to protect judicial "dignity and decorum" - by joining Congress in beginning to open its doors to electronic journalism.