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Law in Popular Culture
Posted August 23, 2017, 8:30 am CDT
We have seen a bit of a renaissance regarding “legal” themed television shows and movies as of late. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, the folks at Fox who greenlight what will air on their station thought an interactive-legal-reality show would be a success. The O.J. trial lasted longer than You the Jury, but the American legal system is better off without it.
We can learn a lot from the reaction (or lack thereof) from viewers. You the Jury looked like Court TV meets American Idol, and it did not sit well with the general public. Still, give credit where it’s due: Fox might not be able to pick a winner, but at least it showed mercy by killing the show after only two episodes.
The premise was simple: Create a reality TV show in which real lawyers and a former judge question witnesses and present the evidence in a case that, as the network put it, was “plucked from the headlines.” The twist? The “jury” deciding the case was the viewing audience who, armed with their smartphones, got to decide the case through a digital vote.
When the idea for the show first leaked, I had my reservations. I thought about writing on how it was horrible idea. While there was something novel to it, the notion just seemed almost sacrilegious, personally. Regardless, I figured it would at least appeal to a generation raised with one eye on reality television and the other on their smartphones.
So what went wrong?
As viewers vote in a fake trial, real courts struggle to get jurors
There were a lot of things not to like about the show. For one, the vote by viewers really didn’t mean too much. Nothing appeared to be at stake other than the professional reputations of the people involved in producing and performing. Moreover, the jury/audience was only given minutes to “vote” as to the verdict. The end result seemed pretty anti-climactic.
Obviously, the series didn’t have the longevity to offer a “follow-up” or “where are they now?” segment, but the verdict itself just didn’t seem to amount to much. Even worse, I don’t believe the best-intentioned attempt at humanizing the litigants would have been enough to make the viewing audience invested in the outcome.
Why? Well sadly, experience has shown that many of the viewers possibly voting for the “winner” in this reality show probably don’t bother answering the call to serve their own communities as jurors in real trials. Estimates from cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, report that only 42 percent of the people summoned for jury duty even bothered to show up during a five-year period. If You the Jury is any indication, those same folks probably still wouldn’t be willing to “cast their vote” even if the government allowed them to complete their civic duties from a smartphone while they set in the comfort of their own homes.
The American legal system deserves better
Courts provide a venue for conflict resolution and redress. The notion of their independence and impartiality has become so ingrained in the traditions and framework of our country that it’s easy to forget courts protect and enforce the rights and privileges people take for granted every day.
The principles of the rule of law, equal protection, and due process we take for granted exist thanks to the judicial branch and the advocates who do battle there. But hopefully the American public agrees there is at least some sanctity in the system. Hopefully we continue to see cheesy reality TV shows like You the Jury falter while over-the-top jury-consultant-centered shows like Bull—a show that at least embraces its fictional elements—continue to stay on the air. It’s likely impossible to every produce and profit from really educating people about the importance and reality of jury duty. It’s just not that exciting. Perhaps that’s why we see smaller percentages of people willing to participate, both in real life and for the purposes of reality television.
But courts are not entertaining, and that’s how it should remain
As a trial attorney, I know that very few, if any, people look forward to actual jury duty. I get it. This civic service takes people away from their families, friends, jobs, and social media. It’s not fun, because it’s not meant to be. People who find humor or entertainment in trial practice or jury duty probably don’t understand the magnitude of the responsibility.
The producers of You the Jury seem to have forgotten that courtrooms are incredibly boring places—except to the attorneys, judges, and litigants with something at stake. There is no background music highlighting an important point made by counsel for one of the parties. There are no flashing lights or signs. There are, however, professional and ethical standards that the attorneys, litigants, witnesses, and even the judge has to follow. Rules aren’t sexy, and they don’t make for good television. There are no fireworks. The jurors sitting in a courtroom have to listen and pay attention to know when something important has been said or done. And the truth is, they are just as likely to sit through a confusing contract dispute as a whodunit murder case.
Aside from the rare celebrity trial, the general public isn’t interested in jury duty, litigation, and deliberation. It’s not entertainment. It is reality. It is an accident victim trying to obtain compensation from a negligent driver. It is parents suing a doctor for malpractice to recover damages for their brain-damaged child. It’s people fighting for their lives against a government with much, much deeper pockets.
It appears from You the Jury and its short shelf-life that the general public appreciates the importance of jury duty, at least to some degree.
Or maybe it’s just that they only vote when someone is singing or dancing.
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. Mr. Banner’s practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes, and white collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.
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