The Minnesota Supreme Court has decided to at least temporarily relax courtroom camera restrictions for criminal trials, issuing an order Wednesday that media only need to get a judge’s approval to broadcast or take pictures in the courtroom.
The two-year pilot project is a small but dramatic change for a state known to have some of the most restrictive courtroom camera laws in the country. It comes after more than 30 years of intense debate by some of the state’s best legal minds and after a report and recommendations by an advisory committee and a public hearing last year.
The pilot project will be evaluated in January 2018. The rules will be far different to those now in place for civil cases, which started allowing cameras to cover entire trials in 2013. Only a handful of civil cases have been televised.
No video or audio media coverage will be allowed during the actual trial. Cameras can be used for sentencings after a defendant pleads or is found guilty. A victim or witness has to approve being filmed, and jurors will never be shown.
A judge can also remove cameras from their courtroom if they have a concern specific to the case, but a judge “just can’t get rid of cameras just because they don’t want them in the courtroom,” said Senior Hennepin County District Judge Mark Wernick, who chaired the advisory committee.
The committee, which consisted of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and academics, voted 11 to 4 in favor of the camera pilot project. The committee was required before the Supreme Court can change a rule of courtroom procedure.
The Supreme Court accepted all but two of the committee’s recommendations. The justices excluded coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence cases, and specialty courts such as drug, DWI, veteran and mental health.
Even with the court ruling, Minnesota still has some restrictive requirements for cameras in the courtroom, said Mike Caputa, news director at WCCO-TV. They are already planning to take advantage of the rule change and was glad the court was willing to explore it.
“We are excited about any crack of the window that allows us to give transparency to the public, and make the court process clearer to Minnesota,” he said.
Cameras are allowed for hearings at the state’s Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court arguments are taped and made available later on the same day on the Internet. The U.S. Supreme Court, where the most important and interesting legal decisions are made, doesn’t allow cameras.
Cameras were banned as far back as 1974, but allowed again with an exhaustive list of restrictions a decade later. The largest impediment was the requirement that attorneys on each side had to agree to cameras, which made it nearly impossible for approval.
The strongest argument made against cameras in the courtroom is the potential chilling effect on the willingness of witnesses and victims to testify. Several of the state’s busiest county attorneys, and the state county attorneys association, expressed their concerns over this issue to the advisory committee.
“We are very much focused on victims and victims’ rights,” said David Brown, chief deputy for the criminal division of the Hennepin County attorney’s office. “We may never really know the extent of the chilling effect. We appreciate the court’s recognition about the victims, but somebody might be able to recognize or identify them even if they aren’t shown on camera.”
Wernick, who voted in favor of cameras, said the best reason to have them in the courtroom is for the transparency. Showing visual images in court, as well as the deliberate nature of courtroom proceedings, is very powerful, he said.
He also raised the issue of ensuring that the defendant receives a fair trial, which should be protected since the public would see only sentencing hearings if the defendant pleads or is found guilty.
Justice Alan Page, who wrote a dissent to Wednesday’s court order on cameras, said it was fundamentally wrong and poor public policy. The court needs to see research showing compelling evidence of the benefits of cameras, which hasn’t been done in the more than 30 years they have been allowed in courtrooms, he wrote.
“There will be unfair coverage with or without cameras,” he wrote. “But the judiciary shouldn’t play a role in facilitating such coverage.”
Page, who is retiring this summer, has long been a critic of cameras in the courtroom. In 2009, he said coverage wouldn’t help eliminate racial bias in the court system and would most likely make it worse. Communities of color would receive a disproportionate level of coverage, he said.
Wernick said Page’s worries are already being realized with the broadcasting of mug shots. If a defendant is motivated during a courtroom sentencing, they could present a more positive image, he said. The broadcasts might also show more judges and attorneys who aren’t white, he said.
“It’s just a pilot project,” he said. “Let’s see how it goes.”