An Echo Press Editorial: Ruling sheds more light on court proceedings
By the Echo Press Editorial Board
The Minnesota Supreme Court made a decision on March 15 that is expected to expand the use of cameras in the courtroom.
In effect, the court’s order means cameras and other audio-visual devices will be allowed in courtrooms during many criminal trials for the first time in state history, according to Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. The new rules will take effect Jan. 1, 2024.
The court’s order eliminates the long-standing prohibition on cameras in criminal trials unless all parties and the judge consented — something that virtually never happened, Anfinson said in a news release. Under the new rules, cameras will be permitted at the discretion of the trial court judge presiding in each case. The objections of the parties are no longer the controlling factor.
The judge in each case will make the decision. The court also added more protections for certain people involved in court proceedings, such as witnesses and sex crime victims. They still will have the power to keep cameras out during their testimony, which makes sense.
Cameras won’t be allowed if a judge determines there’s “a substantial likelihood that coverage would expose any victim or witness who may testify at trial to harm, threats of harm, or intimidation,” according to the order. Although district court judges will still have broad discretion about allowing visual and audio coverage, Anfinson said there’s reason to believe that as the trial courts in Minnesota become more familiar with the presence of cameras, allowing them will become increasingly common.
The Echo Press Editorial Board has long supported allowing cameras in the courtroom, at least under some circumstances. The public should be able to see more easily into our judicial system and gain a better understanding of what exactly takes place in the courtroom. Hint: it’s not exactly how it’s portrayed in movies and crime shows.
Allowing cameras in the courtroom would also help boost public confidence in government and improve public scrutiny of court proceedings and make the judiciary system more transparent.
Anfinson noted that the Supreme Court did adopt certain “guardrails” – limiting the use of cameras during jury selection, testimony of victims without their consent, coverage of minor witnesses and defendants, and pretrial proceedings.
“In other words, the new rules aren’t a complete victory for audio-visual access,” Anfinson noted. “But the Court’s order on (March 15) represents what is by far the biggest move forward in state history on this issue. And again, as experience with cameras accumulates, and the judicial system acquires further evidence that camera access not only provides substantial benefits for the general public but for the court system as well, it’s plausible that many of the remaining restrictions on camera access will be removed.”
The Minnesota Newspaper Association took the lead in the effort to persuade the Court that it should expand camera access in criminal cases, partnering with the Minnesota Broadcasters Association by submitting a detailed memorandum to the Court describing the reasons for supporting that access.
Back in 2018, Anfinson testified before the House Public Safety and Security Committee about a pilot program in Minnesota that had been allowing video coverage of court sentencings. Like the experiences of every state neighboring Minnesota, a two-year trial period turned up zero problems with the willingness of witnesses or victims to participate in court proceedings, he said.
"What cameras add is a new level of public understanding and appreciation for what the courts do," Anfinson said in 2018. "People don't realize just how good the court system is, how good most of the judges are, how efficient and careful and thoughtful the process is. They should be able to see that more, and so far they can't…Judges are really powerful public officials. Why in the world shouldn't those types of functions be more visible to the public so they can better understand and appreciate it?"
Good question – one that this latest Supreme Court decision should lay to rest.