The Minnesota Supreme Court is considering whether a short-term experiment in allowing cameras in courtrooms for sentencing in criminal cases should become a permanent policy.
An advisory panel that studied the three-year-long pilot project concluded late last year that cameras should continue to be allowed. Now, the court is deciding if it should follow that recommendation, end or expand the program — and is still taking feedback from attorneys, media organizations and others with a stake in the decision.
On Wednesday, the justices listened for an hour as members of those groups made their case, some for and some against cameras in the courtroom. Attorneys and a sexual-assault survivors group argued that photos and video of courtroom action threatens victims’ privacy and potentially sways the public against people involved in court matters.
Representatives from media outlets and an open-government group, meanwhile, said Minnesota’s courtroom camera polices are far less transparent than those of most other states and are in need of an update.
Since 2015, cameras have been allowed in criminal court only during sentencing, only with a judge’s permission, and only in certain types of cases. There are no cameras permitted for cases involving domestic violence, sexual assault or juvenile offenders, among other categories.
Judge Michelle Larkin, a member of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the chairwoman of the committee that studied the pilot project, said allowing cameras in for sentencing hearings has not come with the negative consequences that some groups feared. Concerns raised before the project began included disruptions to court proceedings and disproportionate coverage of cases involving people of color.
“People said this is what is going to happen, this is why we shouldn’t do this … and it didn’t happen,” Larkin said.
The state high court’s consideration of the issue comes as the Legislature considers proposals that would further restrict the use of cameras in the state’s courtrooms. Both Republicans and DFLers have expressed support for a bill that would ban video and audio recording in court unless everyone involved in a case — prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, victims, witnesses and the judge — agreed to allow it.
Lawmakers backing that bill, which has not yet received a vote of the full Legislature, say arguments in favor of more transparency shouldn’t outweigh the privacy rights of the people in a courtroom.
Max Keller, an attorney representing the Minnesota Bar Association, told the court that a few seconds or minutes of action from a sentencing hearing in a TV story will do little to inform the public about a case or about the legal process.
“Sound-bite video clips don’t really increase the public understanding of the judicial system,” he said.
Keller added that video footage of a sentencing proceeding could be a long-term problem for someone convicted of a crime, even if they are later pardoned.
Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said her group worries that victims will be unwilling to come forward about crimes if they fear they could end up photographed or on TV. She said groups like hers could help explain the nuances of the law to some victims, but everyone might not get the message.
“Not every victim has an advocate,” she said.
But others said the issues raised by opponents of courtroom cameras have not materialized in the dozens of other states — including Wisconsin and Iowa — with far more relaxed rules.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney representing a coalition of media outlets, urged the court to keep cameras in sentencing hearings, and to expand their use elsewhere in the court system. He said the long history of cameras in courts in other states prove that more access doesn’t hurt the court system or the people involved in it.
“The actual facts that have been accumulated over many years in this country show the benefits of public access by audiovisual devices plainly outweigh the problems,” he said.
Other speakers supportive of allowing cameras were Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor of the Star Tribune; Hal Davis, of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information; and Steve Goodspeed, a longtime TV journalist and TV news director from Duluth. Goodspeed noted that he’s spent years covering court cases in both Minnesota, with its camera prohibitions, and Wisconsin, where cameras are commonplace.
He noted that defense attorneys’ fears that courtroom cameras could hurt their clients are likely unfounded. Without footage from the courtroom, he said TV news stories typically show footage from the crime scene, or a mug shot of the person charged with the crime — something far less flattering than a shot of a defendant dressed up for court.
“We are covering the same stories, regardless of our access,” he said.