The COVID-19 pandemic and livestreamed murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin may have prompted lasting transparency, with the possibility of more widespread use of cameras in Minnesota courtrooms.
The Minnesota Supreme Court issued an order Thursday directing its advisory committee to review state rules on recording criminal proceedings in state courtrooms.
"Audio and video coverage of court proceedings has been a critical component of public access during the COVID-19 pandemic," the court said in a news release issued by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. "The use of remote technology and livestreaming for appellate court oral arguments, district court hearings, and a criminal trial provided increased transparency and accessibility at a time when physical access to court facilities was limited."
The most notable example in the past year was Chauvin's trial, which was seen worldwide via Court TV cameras installed in the 18th-floor courtroom of the Hennepin County Government Center. Chauvin was convicted in April of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Chauvin will be sentenced Friday, and the hearing will be livestreamed.
Because of the pandemic, access to the courthouse during the Chauvin trial was limited to about 30 people to allow for social distancing and security. In addition to the judge, jury, lawyers and staff, two media members were in the room every day as well as one family member or supporter for the defendant and Floyd.
The Chauvin case was the most high-profile example, but throughout the pandemic as courtrooms have been closed to in-person hearings and trials, cameras and the internet have allowed spectators, judges and lawyers into courtrooms throughout the state. Until COVID-19 arrived, Minnesota courts mostly banned cameras so court sessions could be observed only by those who traveled in person to the courthouse.
Jane Kirtley, professor and director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, described herself as "thrilled" by the announcement.
"This may be the opportunity for the sea change that we all had hoped it would be," she said, referring to the coverage of the Chauvin trial. "We saw it worked smoothly and I don't think anybody can argue it didn't contribute to public understanding and oversight."
Star Tribune senior managing editor Suki Dardarian said, "We are extremely pleased to see the court order a re-examination of these rules and also acknowledge the real value of increased transparency and accessibility to the courts."
But Dardarian took issue with the duration of the process, which could take more than a year. She noted that since 2018, the court has already been operating under a pilot project that allowed cameras and recordings in courtrooms after guilty pleas had been entered.
"At a time of greater public scrutiny of the justice system, I would hope to see this effort move with some urgency," she said.
Under the Supreme Court's order, the state Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure will review and recommend whether to update the rules on audio and video access. The panel, which includes judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, has until July 1, 2022, to file a report. A public comment period will follow the filing before changes are adopted.
In Minnesota, the long-standing rule has been that cameras and recording were allowed only with the agreement of all participants in a trial. It's been rare that both prosecutors and the defense attorneys agreed to allow cameras. Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office prosecuted Chauvin, fought for months to keep cameras out of the trial.
But Judge Peter Cahill brushed aside the state's objections and allowed the cameras. Cahill issued an order last year saying the unusual circumstances necessitated allowing Court TV cameras to provide a live feed of the Chauvin trial. In his order, Cahill cited the unprecedented global interest in the trial along with state limits on in-person public gatherings.
Now the state's highest court seems to have seen a benefit as well.
"Technology allowed us to keep a window to our courts open during the pandemic, and provides us with the opportunity to ensure accessibility and transparency of our public proceedings," Gildea said in the news release. "The time is right to consider whether the current requirements for audio and video coverage of criminal proceedings in courtrooms should be amended to accommodate broader public access."
After the trial, Ellison told WCCO Radio (830 AM) that he thought the cameras had worked "pretty well." He also said he was grateful that Cahill had allowed audio but not visual broadcasting of the juvenile witnesses so their faces weren't seen.