It takes a very special type of bully to be proud of publicly shaming our poorest neighbors. About a month ago, a man named Tom Fawbush took to the air to defend one of his employees. Fawbush is the general manager of WBNA, a local television network that airs the child-support court reality show “Deadbeat.” The show consists of footage from Jefferson District Court interspersed with commentary. Fawbush, who does not appear on the show, made his statement because one of “Deadbeat’s” commentators, Nichole Compton, has been plagued by serious allegations that she has failed to pay her bills.
Beyond a passing nod to the odd ways of karma, I do not care about Compton’s financial trouble, but halfway through his statement, now available courtesy of YouTube, Fawbush dropped this line: “The concept of public shaming for wrongdoers is a healthy one for our society and we are proud of what we are doing with this show.” His pride in what his network is doing shows just how odious and insidious “Deadbeat” can be.
I am a public defender. It is my privilege and the privilege of my colleagues to defend many of the people who appear on “Deadbeat.” And our clients deserve nothing less from us than a full-throated and vigorous defense. Most are citizens of Louisville who have never known prosperity and never will. I have clients who are illiterate and clients who suffer from severe physical and mental illness. I represent people with little education and no social, financial or geographic mobility. They are not the Cadillac-queens of popular, if dated, misconception; they are terrified men and women trying to make a life for themselves and their family. Many of them were not present at the proceeding ordering them to pay child support and very few can afford a family law attorney to extricate them from this legal morass or reduce the amount of their required payments. And now they are exploited by local reality television, with their lives, including medical conditions, sexual history and other private information, on full display.
My clients are innocent until proven guilty and entitled to fair proceedings in front of an unbiased judge before the law labels them “wrongdoer.” While “Deadbeat” alleges to present a fair portrait of the players involved and attempts to demystify the legal process, any claim to nuance is belied by the show’s title, graphics, commentary and Fawbush’s pride in “public shaming.” Instead, the show is a modern pillory to which my clients are sentenced without trial and often without plea. It does exactly what the 1965 Supreme Court of the United States was afraid of, when it wrote in 1965 that, “A defendant on trial for a specific crime is entitled to his day in court, not in a stadium, or a city or nationwide arena.”
The show is filmed in the courtrooms of Judge Erica Williams and Judge Sean Delahanty. “Deadbeat’s” website claims that the two jurists have endorsed the program. If I took issue with their ability to be fair in a particular case, I would bring it up where it belongs: in court and on the record. And, to be clear, aside from permitting the show, these two judges have been nothing but fair and evenhanded to my clients and me. But I am concerned with the appearance of impropriety — our system works because people, rightly or wrongly, believe that it is just. By endorsing a program that is proud of its capacity to dish out extra-judicial punishment without regard for due process — punishment solely directed at the poor — it would be easy for a reasonable person to question whether the judges have compromised their independence and impartiality.
There is also the question of whether or not the program undermines the very cause it professes to serve. In order to make child support payments, the people who appear on the show need to find and keep jobs. Labeling them “deadbeats” and broadcasting their story across town makes it more difficult to rehabilitate themselves, gain employment, achieve some sort of normalcy, and make their required payments.
Open courtrooms, covered by a strong and free press, are absolutely necessary for a functioning judiciary in a democracy. The press’ role is so very important not because we delight in the misery of the weak but because we are afraid of the whims of the powerful. “Deadbeat” makes no such claim. Instead, in striving to shame the poor of Jefferson County, it embarrasses us all.
Nathanael Miller is an Assistant Public Defender with the Louisville – Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation.