Three decades in the making. That’s how significant and historic the moment was last week when news cameras were allowed, for the first time, inside a criminal courtroom in northeastern Minnesota.
Unprecedented public access and new insights into the otherwise sometimes-mysterious world of criminal justice. That’s what the moment offered and why it was hugely important to all of us.
“We have been debating and talking about [this] in the judicial branch for 30 years,” Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said in an interview in October with the Duluth News Tribune. “This has not been our tradition in Minnesota, that cameras are allowed in the courtroom, so it’s a big culture shift. So baby steps are appropriate, I think, and that’s what the court is doing. … We’re putting our toe in the water with criminal cases. I think it’s really important from a transparency standpoint, though, that we take this step.”
Minnesota’s first toe in the water came with a pilot project involving civil cases. “We changed that rule first … for, I don’t know, a year [or] year and a half. And it seemed to work fine,” Gildea said. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s see if there’s a way we can do it in criminal cases as well. Is there some way we can put our toe in the water on criminal cases and just see?’ ”
The pilot program now allowing cameras to record criminal proceedings has limitations, including access only after a conviction or guilty plea. The identities of witnesses also, appropriately, are being protected. If the pilot program finds few problems, video and still-photography access could be expanded.
For now, “We’re going to get some data to find out whether there’s an impact on the justice system or not, good or bad. That’s what we want to find out,” Gildea said. “ … We’ve asked the rules committee to keep monitoring it and then give us a report after we’ve been in the pilot phase for a while and let us know how it’s going. …
“We’re very mindful that there are very real concerns, [including] from the victim/witness community [and] from law enforcement. We don’t want to inhibit the reporting of crime.”
Neighboring states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, already allow cameras inside courtrooms, and “it hasn’t created issues for them,” Gildea said. “But their tradition is different. I mean, we’re mindful of that. We haven’t done this [before in Minnesota]. It’s a new thing for us. But I don’t accept the notion that just because we haven’t done it before we can’t do it.”
Attitudes about cameras in courtrooms seem to be shifting on a national level, too. Fourteen federal trial courts participated in a four-year pilot program similar to Minnesota’s that concluded this past July. The Judicial Conference is expected to crunch the data gathered during the past four years and consider recommendations at its March session.
In addition, a Sunshine in the Courtroom Act to expand camera access to judicial proceedings was introduced in Congress in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009. “Sunshine” is a term often used when referring to the need to shine a light on what government is doing as a way of watchdogging and preventing wrongdoing.
The public can welcome and cheer the unprecedented access last week in Duluth to our criminal justice system. The more we’re able to monitor and clearly see what government is doing, the more likely it is to do the right things.
In the judicial branch of government, more public access can help assure appropriate proceedings and fair treatment — and can do so without derailing justice and without violating anyone’s privacy or rights, including the right of a defendant to a fair trial.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE