Given the ethical controversy that came with former Judge Mary Ann Gunn’s use of her drug court as a springboard to commercial television, you’d think a judge wouldn’t even ask.
District Judge Ralph Ohm of Hot Springs asked a Judicial Ethics Advisory opinion about whether the court could co-operate with a TV production company in producing a program, “profit based and perhaps syndicated,” that would expand on a seven-minute trailer already produced. The judge and court personnel expected to payment from the show, they said. The trailer included excerpts from court sessions, interviews with district judges and court personnel and titles such as “America’s Busiest District Court” and “Located in America’s Most Dangerous City.”
Writing for the committee, law professor Howard Brill went through the history of conflicts between judicial integrity and commercial TV productions and applicable rules on use of TV cameras in courtrooms (limited). Conclusion:
Although we are aware of the principle of open courts as well as the public awareness and understanding of the judicial system, we believe that our involvement with this project would cross a line. The proposal raises significant risks of impairing the prestige and dignity of the court, connects the court to an on-going commercial enterprise for entertainment, and raises the appearance of impropriety. … This opinion discusses possible solutions and remedies. But in principle we conclude that participation with the television program proposal as set forth will be inconsisten with the administration of justice in the Arkansas courts and with the principles of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Problems cited included use of public facilities, titles that “may not be well received by the Hot Springs community”; informed consent by all who might be photographed and the question of compensation. On the last, the opinion said that while court personnel would not be paid, a broader issue remains about a rule prohibiting using “the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economi interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so.” Taping of TV proceedings would appear to violate this rule.
In other opinions released today, the committee said:
* RELATIONSHIPS: Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson of Monticello didn’t automatically have to disqualify in a case in which a cousin was an attorney. Cousins are not included in the relationships for which automatic disqualification is required.
* NEWSPAPER COVERAGE: The committee said a Sebastian County drug court could co-operate, in delineated ways, with a newspaper reporting project on the experience of prescription drug abusers sentenced to the court.