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Seidlin's 15 Minutes of Fame

February 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Weeks after her mysterious death Feb. 8, Anna Nicole Smith has proven Andy Warhol wrong, for her fame is anything but fleeting. She remains very much in the news, as the battle raged in a Florida courtroom last week over who would get custody of her body for burial, estranged mother Virgie Arthur or boyfriend Howard K. Stern.

The judge ruled Thursday that Ms. Smith's 5-month-old daughter Dannielynn should decide, effectively letting Mr. Stern decide. Still not decided is who will get custody of Dannielynn, and whether the body of Ms. Smith's deceased son Daniel would be exhumed from the Bahamas -- Ms. Arthur's wish -- or remain where it is, Mr. Stern's desire.

All of this continued to unravel Wednesday morning as I sat riveted for several hours of commercial-free coverage of the proceedings in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., courtroom, where Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin presided over a hearing that seemed as out of control as Ms. Smith did during her short life. In her death she is generating far more ink than she ever got when she was alive.

Again, this is one of those news stories that simply will not go away; viewers seem riveted to the strange twists in the life of a grade-B actress. Or maybe viewers are just the victims of news producers, who know stories like this suck in nearly all of us, to a degree, and who are hyping it to the nines during the February sweeps.

How odd her life, how much odder her demise. Last week TMZ.com reported Judge Seidlin had prepared a demo and was shopping it around in hopes of getting his own televised court show. His behavior in the courtroom, making love to the cameras, certainly suggested that might be the case.

But perhaps more strange, given the big news of the day that Prime Minister Tony Blair would withdraw British troops from Iraq, was the decision by Fox News Channel and CNN Headline News to run the courtroom antics uninterrupted by commercials, with only a running crawl about what was happening on the rest of the planet.

CNN, by contrast, chose to cover all of the news, and I honestly forgot to check out what MSNBC was up to because I was too busy trying to figure out what was going on at the Smith hearing while simultaneously squinting to read the Fox News ticker at the bottom of the screen.

After all, the really bad stuff appears first on the ticker. On Fox it flew by so fast that I kept watching it over and over, seeing a reference about "terror alert elevated." I watched the crawl repeat three times, but never learned where or why or if it ever happened.

So given the new pits of television, I wonder whether Judge Seidlin will get his own TV courtroom show. I hope not. He's an engaging enough personality, a former New York City cab driver from the Bronx who worked his way through law school. But he hardly seemed Socratic, instead dragging out these proceedings, popping off one-liners like a stand-up comic from the Borscht Belt.

Legal critics have said he's deliberately dragging out the Smith hearing for his own benefit, i.e., more airtime, and that as of Wednesday it was pretty apparent how he would rule, having earlier said not everyone would get everything and that it would be wrapped up by the end of the week.

Apparently a Florida coroner had urged him to decide, saying the embalmed corpse was deteriorating and there soon would be no chance of a public viewing. Fine.

What worries me more is that this could set back proponents of cameras in the courtroom, giving the policy's detractors plenty of new reasons why cameras should not be there. And that reason is the immature behavior of 56-year-old Judge Seidlin we all witnessed on TV.

Personally, I hope Mr. Warhol is right, and that Judge Seidlin enjoys what I hope will be only 15 minutes of fleeting fame. Cameras in the courtroom are important to a democracy, and should not impede the wheels of justice. May they not impede them here.