Judge Ann L. Carrott
We frequently see courtroom scenes depicted in the media, whether it is in the movies or television dramas. Sometimes actual courtroom proceedings are broadcast on news programs. However, not all states allow video or audio recordings of courtroom proceedings. Historically in Minnesota, neither cameras nor recording devices have been permitted in courtrooms, except for equipment used by the court to preserve a record of the proceedings. Consequently, courtroom sketch artists depicted the witnesses and other participants.
Recently, however, the Minnesota Supreme Court authorized a “. . . two-year pilot project allowing cameras in the courtroom in civil proceedings with the consent of the district court judge, but without requiring the consent of all the parties.” Minn. Sup. Ct. Order ADM09-8009.
That order does not permit any criminal cases to be broadcast, and not all civil cases are included. For example, no cameras are permitted in the courtroom during marriage-dissolution hearings, juvenile or child-protection proceedings, child-custody or paternity proceedings, order-for-protection matters or civil-commitment hearings.
Restrictions apply that do not allow video coverage of jurors or of witnesses unless they consent. This harkens back to the long-held position by many in the legal community that cameras in courtrooms will unduly influence witnesses and jurors. The Supreme Court order sets out specific rules for the equipment that will be permitted in the courtroom during the pilot project to minimize any distractions. In addition, each judicial district has a designated media coordinator to “ . . . facilitate interaction between the district courts and the electronic media during the course of the pilot project.” Minn. Sup. Ct. Order ADM09-8009. The media coordinators for each district are identified on the Minnesota courts website. (www.mncourts.gov)
Recently, Judge Fred Grunke held a post-trial motion hearing in Stearns County at which a camera was permitted as part of the media-access pilot project. Since no testimony was taken, the impact on witnesses was not an issue. The attorneys argued their respective positions to Judge Grunke and anyone interested could view the proceeding. This was the first request in the Seventh Judicial District.
The fundamental principle that the public has a right to full access to the work of the courts must be balanced with the rights of the parties litigating issues to have a fair opportunity to be heard without outside influence. Media access permitted by the Supreme Court during the pilot project will hopefully provide additional information for assessment of the issues.
Judge Ann L. Carrott is a Seventh District Court Judge chambered in Alexandria.