opinions, everybody's got one...
Saturday, January 05, 2002
Lights, Cameras, Action
I've heard it a lot of times. People confessing that their knowledge of the law comes from television drama and comedy series; "Everything I know about the law, I've learned from Night Court and Law and Order." Many of our courtroom proceedings are public, and people can sit in the courtrooms, and watch almost from beginning to end. Still, most of us learn about the law from TV.
Lately, words about using cameras, and allowing media coverage of court cases have been making a buzz in judicial chambers, and in meetings between the bench and bar in Delaware. A weighing and balancing of the good and the bad aspects of live courtroom coverage, playing in front of the public, is healthy for our small State. It shows that decision-makers are considering the way government functions, and the way that the public views the justice system and the judicial branch of government.
But the thought of putting cameras in the courtroom, and making a case available to a wide audience makes many nervous. There are a good number of arguments for and against the use of cameras in the courthouse. There?s also a lengthy history of media coverage, and of potential abuse.
The first really big case in the United States involving the distraction that the media can cause was the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann. The trial, involving the kidnapping and murder of the son of Charles Lindbergh, was one of the highest profile criminal cases ever reflected in a news photographer?s camera lens. The American Bar Association recommended the banning of cameras from courtrooms in the wake of that case, which had hundreds of reporters and photographers competing with each other to cover it.
Cameras did make a comeback, and the Supreme Court addressed their use in a case called Estes v. Texas, which saw a conviction overturned because the courtroom became the site of an uncontrolled media field day. The court did mention that their holding was limited to the case at hand, and not an outright ban of cameras in courtrooms.
Since then, a number of states have allowed the use of cameras for judicial proceedings. The Florida Bar Online has a very nice summary of the use of cameras in Florida, called, ?Cameras in the Courtroom.? The article includes a history of the use of electronic media in State and Federal Courts, and the steps that Florida has taken to lessen the potential impact that recording might have on a proceeding.
The debate of the use of cameras in courtrooms isn?t limited to Delaware. Federal Courts are facing pressure to allow cases involving the terrorist attack of September 11th to be televised. On January 10, 2002, Representatives from Court TV will be in court to make an argument to allow them to televise the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who is the first person indicted in the attacks. The Senate has already acted to allow for extensive closed-circuit coverage of the case in cities across the United States, and in forums like Madison Square Garden. Such coverage is similar to the type of coverage used in the Oklahoma City Bombing trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The prosecutors? recommendations in that case give some insight into the government's views concerning the rights of the victims in being able to watch the proceedings.
Can cameras distract the participants in a case? Will they behave in manners which negatively impact the rights of the people being represented? Does the public have a right to know what goes on in a courtroom? Can televised court proceedings lose their impact if they take on the appearance of entertainment? Should our citizens? knowledge of the justice system come from reruns of Night Court?
- William Slawski
Sunday, December 30, 2001
Judge Elwood F. Melson, Jr.
Decisions made in Family Court are difficult ones. Perhaps no other court deals with issues as difficult and sensitive as the one that involves the State making decisions regarding domestic relations.
This last Tuesday, one of Delaware?s dedicated public servants died. Former Family Court Judge Elwood F. Melson, Jr., was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1940. He was a Navy veteran, and was elected to a position as a State Senator in 1954. In 1964, he was appointed as an associate judge in Family Court for New Castle County. Judge Melson?s best known legacy was bringing predictability and stability to determinations of child support payments. He created a mathematical formula that was focused on arriving at a fair and equitable settlement between parents regarding payment amounts, while recognizing the needs of children, and of non-custodial parents.
The formula became known as the Melson Formula in Delaware, and was also known in other states and countries as the Delaware Plan. It was years ahead of its time, and influenced many other courts and legislatures. On its face, it appears fairly complex, but an attorney who has used it a couple of times can grasp its intricacies as it balances a good number of issues that previously would have been left to the discretion of a judge. It is aimed at achieving consistent results regardless of who the hearing officer might be in Family Court. It has played an important part in helping other states come up with reasoned discussions as to how their laws on child support should be constructed, and has been adopted by a number of other states.
Melson Formula Articles:
March, 1999 Wilmington News Journal Editorial from Family Court Chief Justice Vincent J. Poppiti
Judge Melson and all who have followed in his footsteps by subsequently updating the formula have tried to balance simplicity with the desire to be fair to both parents and the children. Some states have enacted a straightforward formula that uses a percentage of parents' income, certainly a simple solution, but not necessarily more equitable. The Delaware formula addresses issues such as attributing income to unemployed or underemployed parents, income from second jobs, allowances for insurance and pensions, and support of other dependents.
May, 1999 Wilmington News Journal Editorial from State Rep. Gerald A. Buckworth
A 1988 federal law requires all states to have guidelines for setting and modifying child support obligations. Delaware was ahead of the curve, having instituted such a system nearly a decade earlier.
A findlaw.com discussion of the different models for calculating child support, by Laura Morgan, gives a detailed explanation of the way the Melson Formula is applied, and had the following to say about the Formula:
The proponents of the Melson Formula model argue its internal logic makes it the fairest of the models. Even though the Melson Formula model seems to be the most complicated of the models, its proponents contend that its seeming complexity is superficial; once a practitioner has used the Melson Formula model, its subsequent application is simple.
The Melson Formula model is, indeed, the most internally consistent. It takes into consideration not only special custody arrangements and health care needs, it also takes into consideration each parent's needs. It is thus, on its face, the fairest as perceived by the parent. Where perceived fairness is the most important factor, then the Melson Formula model is the clear winner. Moreover, one expert has found that the Melson Formula model tends to produce less extreme differences in living standards where one parent has a very low income and the other parent has significantly higher income. This again contributes to the perceived fairness of the Melson Formula model. Moreover, because the Melson Formula model takes into consideration commonly occurring expenses, it is consistent and predictable. Its only fault is in its facial complexity.
- William Slawski