New restrictions that could pull the plug on the use of cameras in Minnesota courtrooms are gaining traction in the Legislature, with support from both Republican and DFL lawmakers.
Proponents say cameras intrude on the privacy of victims and make them hesitant to report crimes. Opponents say the bill could erode transparency by ending the independent recording of any court proceedings.
The House Public Safety Committee approved the measure March 21 in a voice vote; its sponsor said it may be included in a broader bill known as an omnibus. The measure would bar video and audio use in court unless the defendant, victim, prosecutor, subpoenaed witnesses and judge agree to allow it.
Most states allow cameras in court and Minnesota’s rules are already among the strictest, said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota media ethics and law professor.
The proposed legislation, she said, “is really about a sneaky way to control media coverage of the courts.” The public benefits, she said, from news accounts that provide “a window into the often impenetrable world of the courts.”
Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the bill’s author, disagrees. “I don’t think that having cameras helps truth-finding, justice-finding in the courts,” he said.
The impetus for the bill, he said, came from victims’ advocacy groups. “People do have compassion for the victims and what they are going through in a trial and don’t want to make things even harder on them,” he said.
Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a prosecutor and the committee’s minority leader, is a cosponsor of the bill. She said at the March 21 hearing that defendants and victims should have “a substantive right” to decide whether cameras are used.
She also warned of a “slow creep” by the state Supreme Court to allow the recording of more courtroom activity.
A Minnesota Supreme Court pilot project that began in 2015 allows cameras only during sentencing in criminal cases 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. Some victims’ advocates worry that those limits could eventually be reversed.
An advisory committee on criminal procedure rules recommended in December that the state Supreme Court adopt those rules permanently; justices also could expand or end the project. A public hearing is set for April 25.
In a statement, Gov. Mark Dayton said, “I support the procedures that have been established by the Supreme Court.”
A Senate hearing hasn’t been scheduled for a version of Knoblach’s bill sponsored by Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud.
St. Louis Park Sen. Ron Latz, is a lawyer and the top DFLer on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, which would consider the measure. He said he supports its goal — “if not necessarily the tactic, due to separation of powers issues.”
The prospect of grandstanding for the cameras, Latz said, could affect the fairness of court proceedings, and it might be harder to compromise or settle some cases.
The Minnesota State Bar Association also has raised the separation of powers question. Its president, Sonia Miller-Van Oort, said in an e-mail that Knoblach’s bill attempts “to usurp the role of the judicial branch and legislate how the judicial branch should carry out its functions.”
The association filed public comments opposing continuation of the Supreme Court pilot project, citing its effect on victims who are often “terrified to come to court” and the media’s tendency to focus on “sensational cases that do not increase transparency or improve access to justice.”
Scott Libin, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota journalism school and chairman of the national Radio Television Digital News Association, said the state’s stance is uncharacteristic.
“We are a state that prides itself in forward-thinking and openness and in this one area we can’t seem to drag ourselves out of the 20th century,” he said.
Other states have allowed cameras in court, sometimes for decades, he said, and there’s “no evidence that civility has crumbled or the justice system has been destroyed.”
Eugene Borgida, a University of Minnesota professor of psychology and law, wishes there was rigorous scientific research on the effects of cameras. He proposed such a study to the state Supreme Court, which didn’t proceed with it.
Borgida, who has worked with Canada’s government on its camera policies, said that while some restrictions are necessary, he thinks there’s value in allowing the public to “see how justice is being dispensed.” Advocacy for cameras in court, he said, “is not about voyeurism. It’s not about an uncontrolled media that wants to jack its ratings.”
At the House hearing, Mark Anfinson, a Minnesota Newspaper Association lawyer, said that coverage from inside courts “provides a reassurance, a catharsis, a demonstration of how the justice system works.” The Star Tribune is a member of the organization.
But Caroline Palmer, legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, called cameras “just another barrier” to survivors’ willingness to report crimes and testify.
“We also know, unfortunately, that so many survivors when they come forward kind of get dragged through the mud,” she said.
Charles Hempeck, executive director of Anna Marie’s Alliance, a St. Cloud nonprofit that shelters battered women and their children, said he sees no need to broadcast “the trauma that women might have to relive in the courtroom.” Some of them, he said, also fear possible exposure to immigration enforcement.
The U.S. Supreme Court bans photography, but it makes audio recordings of arguments available online. It ruled in 1981 that the presence of cameras doesn’t violate Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial.
Since then, some federal courts have loosened rules. In April 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the West Coast began video streaming. When President Donald Trump’s travel ban was heard last May by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., the court allowed C-SPAN to livestream audio.