Helicopter Lawyers

by Diane Dimond on October 11, 2008

Tipping The Scales of Justice?

Tipping The Scales of Justice?

Ahem. I’d like to get the attention of the American Bar Association, please. While I’m at it, the attention of each of the State chapters of the ABA too.

Are you there? Good. Listen, at the risk of getting some of my lawyer friends mad at me I want to register a complaint about some of your members.

They are the lawyers who go on television to pontificate about court cases they have no connection to and have never sat in on.

As a veteran courthouse reporter I know how the game is played. The TV host needs someone to interview about a high-profile legal case and who better than a lawyer, right? No problem so far. We can all certainly benefit from a good and thoughtful lawyer’s legal perspective.

My complaint is about those attorneys who appear on television not to enlighten but to perform and to promote themselves. Often they are in a New York studio offering up very specific pronouncements about what’s happening in, say, the Las Vegas courtroom where OJ Simpson was on trial. They’re not even there! They shouldn’t be telling me, as I heard one say the other day, about how the Simpson jury members are digesting the evidence!

I covered the headline grabbing criminal case of entertainer Michael Jackson in 2005. All the major television outlets had cameras there including many from foreign countries. It was a lawyer magnet. During breaks reporters would stretch their legs in a small courtyard and the “Helicopter Lawyers” would descend. They’d hover about under the guise of helping us really understand what was going on yet some hadn’t bothered to step inside the courtroom before pontificating! A few would literally fly in from other cities and states and immediately hit media row to comment. Still others, we came to find out, were friends of the court gagged attorneys inside, there to act as mouthpieces to hammer home a particular viewpoint.

It happened at the Scott Peterson murder trial in northern California and at the Robert Blake murder trial in southern California. It happened at the Martha Stewart perjury and conspiracy trial in Manhattan. It happens during any trial where television cameras turn up. Lawyers get invited – or just show up – to get their mug on TV. And almost invariably they can’t resist the typical reporter question, “Who’s winning so far?” and the bogus score-carding begins.

Should reporters be more careful in choosing who they actually put on the air? You bet they should. But back to my main complaint – lawyers – who flock to cameras like moths to lights.

I guess it’s the recklessness of their comments that bugs me most. During on-going trials I’ve heard experienced attorneys call a prosecutor’s case “full of laughable evidence,” the witnesses labeled as “lying weirdoes.” Mere suspects in a case are labeled “obviously guilty as sin” or even worse, a “candidate for the electric chair if I ever saw one.”

Aren’t there rules against this? The ABA has a set of Model Rules for members. It’s not binding but 47 states have adopted them in whole or part. Among other things the rules bar “…conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice” and “…conduct involving dishonesty…or misrepresentation.” Recklessly saying things on TV that could affect the outcome of a trial would seem to fly in the face of those rules. What good are rules if members ignore them?

In this 24/7 news atmosphere sitting jurors could easily have a spouse blurt out one of these irresponsible comments or inadvertently see it on the internet or television. It’s known that many jurors ignore the Judge’s admonition not to discuss, watch TV or read anything about the case on which they are sitting. It is human nature to sneak a peak at something that’s been banned.

Set aside the jurors for a moment. The general public is listening too. When they hear one lawyer bashing another’s case it can’t possibly help the legal profession as a whole. While there are exemplary attorneys explaining legal issues in the media it is the ones who rant and rave we remember most.

Doug O’Brien is a rare bird, both a lawyer and national broadcast journalist. He worries that the public may reach opinions based on bad punditry.

“Because no media outlet has the time or space for complete explanations, people who actually listen to what a lawyer pundit says can go away with the wrong impression of the law … Then, surprise! (If) the outcome is different than expected … they think a lawyer or judge is pulling a fast one. That hurts the legal profession.”

I wonder why the ABA hasn’t done something to reign in these careless self-promoters.

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