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May 23, 2011

Should SCOTUS (and lower court) opinions often include visual aids?

Among the many notable aspects of the Supreme Court's work today in the California prison overcrowding case (basics here and here) is the decision by the Court's majority to include three pictures from three different California prisons reflecting aspects of the overcrowding problems faced by these prisons.  And given the sharp rhetoric used by the dissents in Plata (examples here), I am a bit surprised that the dissenting Justices did not add pictures of crime scenes and/or crime victims and/or mean and scary looking prisoners to try to respond in kind to the majority's use of visuals.

Because it has long been known that a picture is worth a thousand words, I certainly think it appropriate and useful for courts to consider adding visual aids to their rulings.  And yet, I also recognize that a move to using more visual images in judicial opinions could open up a very interesting can of pictorial worms.  In this Plata case and in some other settings, the visual aids added to opinion have usually been made part of the case's record by one of the parties.  But I wonder if it would it be appropriate for an opinion to reprint a dramatic graphic or a special pictorial submitted into the record by the parties.  Further still, might some justices or judges even consider creating their own special graphics or even a video to highlight and punctuate the pictures they are trying to create with their words?

Especially because I am a terrible artist, I hope graphic skills do not soon become essential to being an effective litigator.  And yet, in this great new world full or new media, I do not think it is crazy to believe (and fear?) that visual images may begin playing a larger role in judicial decision-making.

May 23, 2011 at 10:47 AM | Permalink


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All of Larry Flynt's cases should have visual aids.

Posted by: The Death Penalty Sucks. | May 23, 2011 6:16:39 PM

Love this comment
Of course, there is something strange about a court that is seemingly allergic to film and cameras covering its own work embracing photographic images to convince readers of a legal argument. Good grief, justices. If cameras have a place in a legal opinion, they surely have a place in the courtroom as well. The court can't reasonably take the position that photos and video are essential to its own work, while still barring photos and videos from the building.
From Show, Don't Tell: Do photographs of California's overcrowded prisons belong in a Supreme Court decision about those prisons?

Posted by: Paul | May 27, 2011 10:44:38 AM

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