Paris Hilton's Celebrity Justice

When a judge ordered Paris Hilton back to jail today, she burst into tears. "Mom! Mom! Mom!" she cried. "It's not right." Her mom, Kathy Hilton, paced the halls of the courtroom after her daughter was escorted out by a female deputy. "I am paralyzed," Kathy reportedly said. For a family very accustomed to the spotlight, today's media circus proved more than they could bear. Earlier this afternoon, on her way to court, Paris was photographed sobbing in the back seat of a sheriff's car.

The Hilton saga is one of the oddest court dramas to play out in public since the days of the O. J. Simpson debacle—in part because the stakes are so low. O.J. was charged with murder; Paris was hit with a "driving under the influence" charge, then drove on a suspended license, despite at least two warnings from the police. After a trial last month, she was sentenced to 45 days in jail; the judge, Michael Sauer, prohibited her from serving any of her time under house arrest. Hilton fired her publicist, rehired him, appealed the verdict, then dropped the appeal—all before attending the MTV Movie Awards last Sunday, telling the country she was ready to serve time. "I am trying to be strong right now," Paris said. "I'm really scared but I'm ready to face my sentence."

Paris went to jail Sunday, but she was—surprise—released three days later. The sheriff's office said she suffered from a medical condition, and allowed her to serve the rest of her sentence under house arrest. Later, the condition was described as "psychological," although no details of the exact ailment were disclosed. (More mysteriously, we still don't know why Paris couldn't check into the correctional facilitiy's hospital for help.) Nevertheless, Paris's family was joyous that the 26-year-old was no longer behind bars. They were even planning a party at her house tonight, to celebrate her newfound freedom.

But as the delivery men hauled loads of food to her house this morning, Paris was already headed back to court. The city attorney's office was furious that Paris was out, arguing that the sheriff overstepped his boundaries in letting her go. Perhaps hoping to stall, Paris's lawyers decided that she would testify at today's hearing over the phone. But the judge ordered her to appear in court, prompting the paparazzi to gather outside her house as she waited, reportedly, for her makeup artist to arrive. After an hour, Paris finally emerged in a shabby sweatshirt and was taken to court, where the judge sent her back to jail. But he didn't hold the sheriff in contempt—a move that would have escalated the war between the judge and the sheriff. "It's very uncommon [for a prisoner] to be released for medical reasons," says Laurie Levensen, a professor at Loyola Law School.

The big question now is how much time she'll serve. After the judge's verdict ("the defendant is remanded to county jail to serve the remainder of her 45-day sentence"), media reports circulated that he had actually increased Paris's time—since it had previously been cut down to 23 days due to overcrowding. But the city attorney's office says the judge was likely just reiterating the original sentence. And if the case wasn't already complicated enough, Paris's attorneys will likely now file another appeal. The anticipated line of argument: the sheriff did have the power to release Paris.

Paris's early release provoked anger in the blogosphere. The story was suddenly no longer just about a young celebrity in trouble—but whether the rich and famous can pull strings and weasel their way out of jail. "We're getting a lot of calls, not just from Los Angeles, but from New Jersey to Florida to Michigan, from people who are very, very upset with the decision [to release her early]," says Frank Mateljan, spokesperson for the Los Angeles city attorney's office. "People are all asking the same question: why does this double standard of justice exist?" For the moment, a single standard seems to have been restored. But as we all know, when it comes to Paris Hilton, all the rules are eventually broken.