With cameras now in nearly every purse or pocket, there’s something quaint — and increasingly unenforceable — about barring video-recording and still photography at trials, hearings and other court proceedings that are open to the public. Yet such an effort was mounted last week at the Legislature. A bill to ban the use of cameras in criminal courtrooms unless all parties to the proceedings give their express consent was set aside for inclusion in an omnibus bill by the House Public Safety Committee.
We hope it goes no further. This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, would have the Legislature tread more deeply into the internal affairs of the courts than is fitting in a state whose Constitution provides for separation of powers among the three branches of government.
Knoblach described his bill as necessary in order to spare crime victims from publicity’s potentially adverse consequences. In fact, Minnesota’s rules governing use of cameras in the courtroom already bar video recording and photography of all but the sentencing and post-guilty plea proceedings in criminal cases. Recording of witness testimony is disallowed.
Those rules have been painstakingly developed by the courts with much testing and public input. They’ve been under consideration in some fashion since 2007 and are still not final. A proposal to make permanent the rules tested in a 2015-17 pilot project is scheduled for one more hearing on April 25. The committee overseeing the rules’ development did not consider expanding audio or visual coverage beyond post-guilt proceedings, spokesman Beau Berentson said.
Minnesota’s courts have been uncommonly cautious about cameras in the courtroom. The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that as of 2012, all 50 states allowed recording of at least some courtroom proceedings. Minnesota then was still limiting cameras to civil proceedings, and then only with a judge’s consent.
It’s telling that supporters of the bill at Wednesday’s hearing offered no evidence of ill effects from the 35-some other states that have fewer restrictions than Minnesota. (The Minnesota Newspaper Association, of which the Star Tribune is a member, testified in opposition to Knoblach’s bill.)
Instead, the national story for several decades has been a growing realization that transparency is a plus, not a minus, for the least-understood branch of government. The courts gain respect and appreciation when their operations are on view — and in the 21st century, “on view” means available to be seen on a smartphone, on demand.
Legislators have seen that the same goes for their own branch of government. It’s why Wednesday’s hearing in the House Public Safety Committee was aired on television, live-streamed on the internet, and both audio- and video-recorded.
Legislators would rightly take umbrage if the courts sought to control which legislative proceedings could be aired or recorded. They should see that their attempt to control the judicial branch is just as offensive, and stand down.