by Max Brantley
A lawsuit has been filed seeking to prevent use of drug court video in the commercial TV show. A Supreme Court rule now prohibits filming of such courts. An editorial in the local Northwest Arkansas newspapers that are sold in combination with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wasn't too concerned about the arguments in the case, writing today in an editorial, in part (note CORRECTION: I originally indicated incorrectly that the local wraparounds were the D-G itself):
No one challenged this practice in a suit brought before an appropriate court while these recordings were being made. Everyone who entered drug court did so as an alternative to going to trial on a felony charge. It was an opportunity to get off drugs and get the defendant’s life in order.
Remarkably successful as it was, many people failed the drug court program. None of them successfully appealed and protested that either the televising or the recording of drug court harmed his or her case in any way.
No one claimed until recently that any harm was done by these recordings being preserved. Nothing was recorded that didn’t take place in an open courtroom. Any member of the public who was so inclined could have gone to court on any particular day, sat in the audience and watched the proceedings.
Some problems with this and one is obvious: Nobody in drug court could have imagined the judge was building a record she intended to take to commercial TV producers for national telecast. None of them anticipated the judge would haul off 76 bank boxes full of their records, some of them personal medical records, when she left office. None of them thought to ask the judge if the copies of the videos provided to her would ever wind up in California TV producers' hands.
So far, there's no evidence that those who are now objecting in a lawsuit to seeing their lives on national TV ever signed a waiver allowing their cases to be televised. And at least one defendant did object in a timely fashion. Too bad for her. Judge Gunn was the law, no matter what court rules then said about requiring approval of parties before court proceedings could be broadcast. The evidence is from a transcript of a hearing for a woman kept in Gunn's drug court for three troubled years, including an episode in which Gunn jailed her for being photographed in the proximity of a high-powered rifle (not a crime so far as I know.)
The transcript depicts an environment in which Gunn decided who'd be on TV, whether they wanted to or not. Being on TV clearly was part of Gunn's bargain if you wanted the alternative to jail that drug court provided. This is precisely the coercive effect the judicial ethics panel feared in finding the televised drug court was improper. Too bad the NWA newspapers didn't have a reporter in the courtroom for the episode memorialized below.
(PS — I've been told Gunn is getting participants for her TV show by paying a local drug treatment outfit for treatment of people willing to be on TV. She won't have jail as a hammer; just the end of payment for treatment. I've yet to find anyone with studies to show TV exposure is good drug rehab therapy. One agency refused to participate, I was told.)
On to the transcript:
FROM A TRANSCRIPT OF PROCEEDINGS DEC. 21, 2009
CASE OF STATE vs. SHARINA WATKINS
THE COURT: Now, Ms. Watkins, it's my understanding that you made a phone call saying that you weren't supposed to be on television and you were in your lawyer's office, and I want to know what lawyer it was.
WATKINS: My uncle went to speak to his attorney.
THE COURT: No. No. No. I want to know what lawyer you were talking to when you called Jones TV and said 'I'm not supposed to be on TV.'
WATKINS: I wasn't talking — I said — I did say I was in a lawyer's office. I was on my way to work.
THE COURT: Well, it's ultimately my decision who is on — when we televise, who's on TV and who's not. Now, your uncle, what's your uncle's name?
THE COURT: Ed, are you here? (raises hand)
Come on up, Ed.
It's my decision. They yanked ... the whole program because of that, Sharina.
WATKINS: When you — when you came into class, both you times you —
THE COURT: I understand that.
WATKINS: —visited, you said if you don't want to be filmed
THE COURT: That's right.
WATKINS: — all you have to do is ask.
THE COURT: You have to ask.
WATKINS: I've asked multiple times.
THE COURT: And then I make the decision, Sharina. I make the decision.
THE COURT: Sharina, what's your problem being televised?
WATKINS: I work for an organization — a company that has over 30,000 members and I work with a large portion of the public sector. And I thought that I wasn't to be on TV.
THE COURT: That's not my question .... My question is, what is your problem with —
WATKINS: My problem is that I — I — it's a professional job and my supervisor knows about it. He said it's fine that I know you're in Drug Court, no one else needs to know. You're not televised are you? And I said no. I requested to not be televised, sir. He saw me on TV and was very upset and that's why I called Jones Television.
THE COURT: One of the reason that you're on television is because we were merciful when you went to work at your last professional job drunk. We kept you in this program. We have kept you in this program despite some of your sanctions. You should have been terminated. ... Now if you are requesting special — I mean, they — they pulled the entire program, Sharina. It is to help educate the community. Every person is here, including the treatment team, are trying to teach the members of our community what drugs can do.
WATKINS: I was just ... going on your word. You came and spoke to us ... on two different occasion and you said if you want — if you don't want to be on television, you don't have to be. All you have to do is ask. I've done all that, so I don't ... understand. ... And they didn't pull the entire episode, they edited me out. The episode is still showing.
THE COURT: Okay. Let me tell you this ... You want to remain in this program?
THE COURT: Okay. It will be my decision whether or not you are televised. Now don't you dare call ... any other organization, nonprofit organization that works with the Drug Court program Don't you call them. Don't you talk to them. Don't you call Altrusa or the schools or anyone else. It is not your place.
WATKINS: It's not my right?
THE COURT: Your place is to go through your counselor.
WATKINS: I did do that.
THE COURT: ... That's fine. I'm setting you for termination.
WATKINS: I don't understand.
THE COURT: You are not an active participant in this program. You know, you want special treatment.
WATKINS: No, ma'am.
THE COURT: And we have given you special treatment.
WATKINS: Ma'am, I just, I took you at your word.
THE COURT: Okay.
WATKINS: I asked to not be televised. I don't know how that is a problem.
THE COURT: My — what I told you all was if you do not want to be televised, sign up, then I look at it and talk to the treatment team. It is part of the community service of this program. And all I'm telling you is — you know, you have had an attitude since the day you walked in this door and we have bent over backwards but you seem to think that you are privilegted and you seem to think that we to break all of the rules or bend the rules for you, Sharina. And I'm appalled that a non-profit organization with our community outreach program would be affected by your telephone calls and threats. Now that's the last I'm going to say to you and I will see you next month at termination. That's the order of the court.