The Minnesota Supreme Court issued a seismic ruling Wednesday regarding media coverage inside criminal trials by expanding camera and audio courtroom access after decades of debate and calls for change.
"It's groundbreaking in this state," said University of Minnesota media law and ethics Prof. Jane Kirtley, seeing the decision as having been a long time coming.
Minnesota joins more than 35 other states that have routinely allowed cameras in court. Florida became the first in 1979, but Minnesota's highest court has long resisted expanding access despite the urging of media outlets and government transparency groups. Even with the ruling, media access in the courtroom is not the presumption.
As it stands today and until the change takes effect Jan. 1, 2024, media outlets have to request coverage for proceedings prior to the guilty/not guilty stage, such as pretrial hearings or trial itself. Trial coverage is allowed only if consent is given by all parties, including defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge — an occasion that rarely, if ever, happens.
With this ruling, a judge has full discretion over visual and audio coverage on a case-by-case basis.
"In the end, we find that the modifications... will promote transparency and confidence in the basic fairness that is an essential component of our system of justice in Minnesota and protect the constitutional rights and safety of all participants in criminal proceedings in the State," Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in the eight-page ruling.
Exceptions to Minnesota's longstanding ban on cameras during trial have happened only twice because of intense public interest and restrictions resulting from the pandemic: the recent high-profile trials of former police officers Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter for the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright.
In a five-page dissent, Justice Anne McKeig, a former Hennepin County prosecutor, wrote that in those exceptional cases, both defendants were white. McKeig said that people of color are disparately punished by the criminal justice system and that expanding camera access could exacerbate these already prevalent issues. But the ruling notes there is no data to show whether expanded camera access would negatively affect defendants of color.
First Amendment attorney Leita Walker, who has represented a coalition of media including the Star Tribune in courtroom access issues, said that, "there's no evidence that this is a problem over 40 years and 35 other states, and I think with time we're going to show judges here in Minnesota that it's not a problem here either."
Walker said the ruling still leaves judges a lot of discretion and doesn't guarantee there's going to be a camera in every trial, or every case.
"It gives the press an opportunity to bring cameras in and to normalize them and to show that the sky does not fall. In fact, confidence and trust in the system grows when you let people watch the justice system."
Minnesota Chief Public Defender Bill Ward said that while the ruling is a "win" for media outlets, concerns remain among defense attorneys and prosecutors about how the new rules will affect defendants.
"I don't think that justice is a spectator sport. Certainly people have their rights to view and it is a very transparent process by going to the courthouse and watching how things unfold," he said. "And ultimately, if people just watch snippets and parts, because it's televised that way, they're not seeing the entirety of what happened."
Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court directed its advisory committee to see if the courtroom coverage rules should be modified or expanded. The committee, made up of judges, attorneys and court personnel, found that "brief snippets of coverage by the media shed no real light on what happens in the course of a criminal case and provide no real public educational value." It objected to further changes to the rules.
Incremental changes were made over recent years to allow coverage of post-guilt proceedings, such as sentencings, as long as media outlets file requests.
First Amendment attorney Mark Anfinson said with that change came a growing number of requests granted by judges for sentencing coverage, so it appears they are more comfortable with media access at that stage in criminal proceedings. He believes that will now carry over into full trials.
Anfinson said that savvy judges see the benefits and want to embrace cameras, "not for the sake of the media, but for the sake of the court system."
"It should be more visible, people should see this," he said. "The people's confidence in the courts will increase when they are able to get a sense of the full spectrum of criminal court proceedings."
Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill presided over Chauvin's trial, and in a historic ruling, permitted livestreaming of the trial.
Cahill advocated for changing camera courtroom rules to allow greater access. Anfinson believes Cahill's letters in support of the change played a key role in Wednesday's decision.
Retired Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu also told the Star Tribune last year that she believed allowing media coverage was the right move in Potter's trial.
Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian praised the decision as a significant step to promote transparency. "And, after so many years of discussion and debate, it is particularly gratifying that the ruling came during National Sunshine Week, an annual opportunity for journalists to champion freedom of information and transparency in government," Dardarian said.
Victim advocate groups, such as the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Violence Free Minnesota, expressed concerns about expanding access. They believe it will discourage victims from reporting crimes and retraumatize survivors.
McKeig echoed that reservation in her dissent, saying that expanding access could hurt victims' families and defendant's families because of the "disclosure of deeply personal, embarrassing, or hurtful details" without "autonomy over the information shared."
"Consider the parent of an adult victim in a sexual assault case being forced to publicly encounter, explain, and confront the harrowing details of their child's assault … or imagine the child of a defendant who has to endure their parent being constantly vilified in the media," McKeig wrote.
The modified rules will continue to prohibit photos and video of victims in trial unless they explicitly consent to coverage. That's been the standard even at sentencings.
Kirtley said while those opposed to cameras in the courtroom "predicted a parade of horribles that was going to happen," the Potter and Chauvin trials proved otherwise.
She saluted First Amendment attorneys such as Walker and Anfinson, as well as Cahill, who she said "was willing to stick his neck out" amid widespread opposition. She said not every judge will welcome media coverage like Cahill did.
With judges at least willing to try cameras, she said, "I would expect that the court will expand [access] even more, or at least that's my hope."
"For better or worse, it's important to give the public a chance to see for themselves."