Chief justice: High court will consider cameras in trials

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2009 - 9:01 PM

A panel will present a pilot program to weigh greater camera use, he said in a speech. He also pushed for changing how judges are selected.

Minnesota's chief justice said Friday that the state Supreme Court will take a hard look at an issue that has long provoked sharp debate: whether to free up access for cameras in trial courts.

Eric Magnuson, making his 2009 State of the Judiciary address in Duluth before the Minnesota State Bar Association Convention, said that a Supreme Court committee will present a pilot program to "explore the possible consequences of greater camera access to district courtrooms."

In particular, the committee will try "to determine the impact on witnesses and parties that cameras may have; something I know many prosecutors, defense lawyers and victims advocates are concerned about," Magnuson told the gathering at the Duluth Events and Convention Center.

Advocates of camera access in trial courts say it fosters openness and accountability.

Magnuson said that camera access in other courts in Minnesota has gone well, but he understands that expanding access to trials would be "more controversial."

"We have allowed cameras in appellate courts for many years now and provide a video archive of Supreme Court arguments on our website," he said.

Since the 1980s, Minnesota has had a system in which any of the parties or the judge may decide that cameras are not allowed in any given trial, effectively banning them from trial courts. Opening trial courts to cameras would bring Minnesota in line with most other states.

Probably the most high-profile use of cameras in court came with this year's Senate recount trial, where lawyers for candidates Norm Coleman and Al Franken made their respective cases before a special three-judge panel. Magnuson said that the broadcast and webcast of the trial "was favorably received by the public and enhanced the credibility of the judicial process."

Cuts less severe than feared

Regarding the state judiciary's financial pressures, Magnuson had signaled earlier this year that budget cuts to the courts would force him to curtail activities, including suspension of conciliation court, reduced dockets and other measures. However, Magnuson said Friday that funding from the state was "not cut nearly as much as we had feared," about 1 percent overall.

Among the cost-saving moves still being contemplated, the chief justice said, will be asking lawyers to volunteer to hear conciliation and other minor civil cases. Magnuson said this is being done in Ramsey County now "and has proven to be a positive experience for the court and the volunteer lawyers."

Magnuson also made a pitch for the Legislature to put before voters next year a constitutional amendment to change how judges are picked. The proposal calls for judges to be appointed. Their performance would be publicly evaluated, and voters periodically would choose whether to keep them. The idea is to avoid the expensive and contentious campaigns for judgeships seen in other states. Critics call the proposal undemocratic and say it would leave control over who becomes a judge in the hands of the legal and political elite.

As chief justice, Magnuson chairs the Judicial Council, which governs the state's Judicial Branch. The branch is made up of 10 judicial districts, 19 Court of Appeals judges and seven Supreme Court justices. It has a budget of $300 million and employs about 2,800 people.

Magnuson has been chief justice since last year, when he was appointed to the court by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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