The Minnesota Legislature is currently considering a bill, approved by the House Public Safety Committee on March 21, that would end the use of video and audio recording in criminal courtrooms in the state. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court held a hearing on extending a pilot program that has allowed video cameras in some criminal proceedings since 2015. Here is a brief overview of the history of the issue and the arguments for and against allowing video cameras in Minnesota courtrooms.
Have cameras always been banned from courtrooms?
Still photography, audio recording and video cameras were prohibited in federal courts beginning 1946. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that states may decide whether to allow video cameras in criminal trials.
Some lower federal courts began allowing electronic coverage of some proceedings with a judge’s authorization in 1991, after a committee appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist recommended a pilot program for civil cases. The Supreme Court does not allow cameras, though it does release transcripts and audio of arguments.
According to the Radio Television Digital News Association, nearly every state allows cameras into courtrooms in at least some circumstances. Minnesota has long been among the most restrictive states, prohibiting video cameras in the state Supreme Court until 2005. Except for limited program in the 1980s, cameras were not allowed in criminal cases in lower courts until a pilot program began in 2015.
What are the current rules in Minnesota?
The Minnesota Supreme Court has allowed some news organizations to set up video cameras in the courtroom and post video online after hearings are concluded. It has permitted Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) to post video recordings its website since 2005, and has posted videos on the state judicial branch's website since 2016.
A program to allow video cameras in courtrooms during civil cases began in 2011. A pilot project authorized by the state Supreme Court that began in 2015 allows cameras in criminal cases during sentencing and other post-conviction proceedings with a judge’s permission. Cameras can’t be used in domestic violence, criminal sexual assault or juvenile cases, when jurors are present or in special courts such as those that deal with drug or veterans cases. A victim or witness must approve being filmed, and jurors can never be shown.
In 2017, the Supreme Court for the first time allowed a live-stream of arguments in the state Legislature’s lawsuit against Gov. Mark Dayton over the governor’s veto of the Legislature’s budget.
What would the bill in the Legislature do?
The House Public Safety Committee approved a bill March 21 that would bar video and audio use in court unless the defendant, victim, prosecutor, subpoenaed witnesses and judge agree to allow it. It would also prohibit the use of state funds to expand the use of audio and video coverage of criminal trials in fiscal years 2018-2019. A corresponding bill has also been introduced in the Senate.
What’s the status of the pilot project?
An advisory committee on criminal procedure rules recommended in December that the state Supreme Court adopt the rules permanently. Minnesota Supreme Court justices could also decide to expand or end the project. A public hearing on the project was held on April 25.
What are the arguments for and against allowing cameras in the courtroom?
Proponents say they increase government transparency and can help the public understand how the justice system works.
Victim advocates argue cameras intrude on the privacy of victims and could make them hesitant to report crimes. Others say the prospect of grandstanding for cameras could make it harder to settle some cases and worry the media will focus on the most sensational cases.
The Minnesota State Bar Association opposes continuing the Supreme Court pilot project, but does not support the Legislature’s bill because it attempts to “usurp the role of the judicial branch and legislate how the judicial branch should carry out its functions.”