Our judicial system is a delicate balancing act between the rights of the defendant (with an eye toward protecting the innocent accused), the victim (justice), and society as a whole (sequestering and/or rehabilitating the dangerous, letting it be known that breaking the law is unacceptable).
The media takes it upon itself — many feel with an eye primarily toward its own interest — to defend the public’s “right to know,” and in the case of the Michael Jackson child molestation and conspiracy trial, the original judge, an appeals court, and now the California Supreme Court have ruled that Jackson’s right to a fair trial — he was acquitted on all counts — superceded the public’s “right to know.”
Original trial judge Rodney S. Melville closed court proceedings to cameras, and sealed dozens of records including details of the indictment and the grand jury transcripts, which he said could have prejudiced the jury pool. The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in April that Melville had been justified in sealing the records, and last week the California Supreme Court denied a request by news organizations to “depublish” the ruling, meaning it will remain on the legal books and can be used as a precedent on the issue of sealing documents in other cases.
“It is a very dangerous precedent because it gives the court an opportunity to close out the public from critical information during a high-publicity trial,” Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson told the AP. “This formalizes the celebrity exception to the First Amendment.”
“The argument that the Jackson lawyers made for secrecy was that this was a special case,” said Theodore Boutrous Jr., who argued the case on behalf of the news media. “It should have extraordinarily limited application, but there is the danger it will be applied to other cases.”
On the other hand, County Counsel Stephen Shane Stark said, “The media’s insatiable quest for stories that showcase criminal behavior illustrates why this decision is significant and should remain published. While admittedly a Michael Jackson case does not happen very frequently, the media presents for public consumption a new crime story seemingly every day.”
This strikes me as an odd statement: should the media NOT “present for public consumption a new crime story seemingly every day” if in fact those stories are news?
In walking the fine line between competing rights, the California judicial system in this case has sided with those of the defendant, especially a celebrity defendant, and most especially of all when the charges are as emotionally incendiary as child molestation, against the public’s right to closely observe a system sanctioned in its name.