An open-government debate that has gone mostly unnoticed for the past 30 years cleared another milestone in early July.
The Minnesota Supreme Court filed an order permanently opening up Minnesota’s criminal courts to cameras.
The decision comes after a 2-1/2-year pilot program on camera access to criminal proceedings. The permanent rules take effect Sept. 1.
The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1981 that states may adopt rules permitting cameras and recording equipment in their courts. Since then, all 50 states have done so, but the rules vary widely. In some states visual and audio coverage is permitted in all types of court proceedings that are public, and in others such coverage is permitted only in appellate courts.
Minnesota’s rules remain among the nation’s most restrictive. Except for limited programs in the 1980s, cameras were not allowed in criminal cases in lower courts until a pilot program began in 2015. For more than 25 years, media representatives were required to file an application with the court in advance of the trial, and each of the parties to the case had a chance to refuse camera access to the courtroom. This resulted in very few cases ever being shown. It provided little evidence to determine whether having cameras in the court affected the fairness of the trial.
The permanent rules fall far short of allowing total coverage.
The new rules allow audio and video recording simply at the discretion of the trial judge — the attorneys and parties don’t have a veto. But recording will continue to be allowed only after a guilty plea has been accepted or a guilty verdict has been reached.
Reacting to the order, the Minnesota Newspaper Association called the decision “a modest but important victory.” The Court determined “the overall impact of permitted coverage on the proceedings ranged from neutral to positive,” and that there was “minimal disruption of the proceedings.”
Opponents of cameras, such as Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, argue the prospect of visual coverage could discourage victims from reporting crimes and deter witnesses from coming forward. Two St. Cloud-area lawmakers, Rep. Jim Knoblach and Sen. Jerry Relph, proposed legislation that would bar video and audio use in court unless the defendant, victim, prosecutor, subpoenaed witnesses and judge agree to allow it. Their legislation also barred using state funds to expand audio or video coverage of criminal courts. Those measures failed.
Opponents also argue cameras and other recording equipment disrupts and distracts jurors, lawyers and witnesses. One hundred years ago, large still cameras that needed flash bulbs could indeed disrupt the proceedings. Early huge television cameras rested on tripods and were serviced by thick cables. Technology solved that problem. Today, tiny cameras operated by remote control from outside the courtroom produce high-quality photos and sound. Most courtrooms are already equipped with microphones and sound systems.
Video reporting on trials is no longer limited to a few minutes on the evening news. Entire trials can be streamed online so citizens can see what really happens in court. The majority of Americans have never set foot in a courtroom. Learning about and appreciating the justice system by watching a real trial beats watching “Law and Order.”
The new rules will provide evidence to eventually allow full trial coverage. With restrictions to protect some witnesses and victims, coverage should be expanded to all criminal proceedings.