The Minnesota Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval Monday to cameras in the courtroom, making a three-year pilot project permanent.
That doesn’t mean that media outlets, TV stations, newspapers and independent journalists will be able to film every court case — DWIs and murder trials, alike — from start to finish. The ruling, like the pilot project, permits audio and video recordings “after a guilty plea has been accepted or a guilty verdict has been returned.”
It specifically prohibits cases involving charges of criminal sexual conduct and family or domestic violence. Testimony from victims or someone testifying on behalf of a victim, hearings without the presiding judge present and cases in a treatment court also are protected. The jury cannot be filmed or photographed.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision in favor of openness,” said Suki Dardarian, senior managing editor/vice president of the Star Tribune.
In its unanimous ruling, the court said, “Proceedings in Minnesota’s courts, including criminal proceedings, are public.”
Opponents of cameras in courtrooms voiced their concerns to the justices during a hearing in April.
Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said in April that her group worries that victims will be unwilling to come forward and report crimes if they fear they could end up photographed or on TV.
It’s as much about perception as it is about reality, Palmer said Monday. If a victim sees a murder trial televised, it could discourage them from coming forward with their own case.
“It’s then going to be really on the advocates who work with sexual assault victims to inform them to say that’s going to be protected,” she said. “But a lot of folks don’t even know an advocate is out there.”
In the vast majority of cases, in video and in print, media outlets refrain from identifying a victim — adult or child — of sexual assault.
Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, is a media consultant for the state court system and sees every media request asking for cameras in the courtroom. The previous pilot project required a 10-day notice; the ruling Monday shortens that to seven days.
“This is progress,” he said Monday. “Not with a capital P, but it’s progress. I think the court ultimately will have to go much further, along the lines of what Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota do. All have allowed routine coverage of court cases for more than 30 years. And more than 30 other states do as well.
“The advantage the media and the public have as time goes by is we acquire evidence as we do these things,” he said. “We gain experience, we gain knowledge. So far the evidence is very one-sided. There’s nothing that supports the alarms and fears of the opponents.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling noted that during the three-year pilot project, the media requested to cover 79 cases. Coverage was allowed in 53.
“Based on the data reviewed and evaluated, a majority of the committee concluded that the overall impact of permitted coverage ... ranged from neutral to positive,” the ruling said. “There was, in other words, minimal disruption of the proceedings and no instances of coverage outside the conditions established for the pilot project.”
The court did change certain aspects of the pilot project. In cases where a guilty plea was not accepted by a state judge until the sentencing hearing, attorneys could object to the presence of cameras in the courtroom, citing the rule of 10 days’ notice. The permanent policy disallows those objections.
The Advisory Committee on the Criminal Rules of Procedure, which studied the pilot project and advised the court, also recommended that camera coverage of domestic violence cases in which the victim had died be allowed. The court said no.
The court also adapted recommendations to provide consistency in the permitted coverage between civil and criminal cases. Civil cases in Minnesota have been open to cameras since 2011.