A step toward the light

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent judgment could lead to more media in the state’s trial courts.

The Minnesota Supreme Court handed down rule changes on Feb. 12 that will impact the presence of cameras in Minnesota courtrooms at least the next year. The background: The old regulations, which expire on Feb. 28, prohibit any âÄúbroadcasting, televising, recording or taking photographs in the courtroomâÄù of any state district court. District courts are the lowest level of the judicial system, the level at which any jury trials, witness testimony and criminal sentencing takes place. Any exception to this prohibition required the permission of the judge, both parties involved in the proceeding and any witnesses that might be pictured. Even if permission was obtained from everyone involved, none of the recordings could be shown until the entire proceeding was complete, and even then, images could only be displayed for âÄúinstructional purposes in educational institutions.âÄù In practice, this rule essentially excluded any camera from a Minnesota trial court. Which is why, when you think back on even the most famous court cases in MinnesotaâÄôs recent history, you wonâÄôt find any news clips, whether the story was as mundane as a business lawsuit or as prominent as a murder trial. Media could cover the cases, but they couldnâÄôt use cameras. The changes To protest these restrictions, several media groups petitioned the Minnesota Supreme Court to look into the possibility of loosening the prohibitions on allowing cameras in the courts. In 2007, the Court commissioned a committee to consider the impact a change in the rules might have on Minnesota courts. The committee conducted multiple hearings and heard the testimony of opponents and proponents of a rule change. Camera proponents said that allowing cameras would help educate the general public about court proceedings, allow for more accurate media reports on local trials and generally fulfill the expectations of openness and accountability Minnesota has for its elected judicial officials. In addition, advocates for changing the rule argued that technological advances enabled media members to capture proceedings without disturbing the actual activity of the courtroom. The State Supreme Court held a hearing on July 1, 2008, in which they heard often passionate testimony from both sides, including several judges from other states that unanimously praised the changes brought about by allowing cameras into their courtrooms. (Currently 35 other states allow cameras in their district courts to some degree). Thomas Frost, an advocate for abused children, argued that the additional openness created too great a risk of silencing victims. âÄúThe children seeing televised trials may conclude, âÄòThis is what happens when crimes are reported,âÄô âÄù Frost said at the July 1 hearing. âÄúIf we put the possibility in their mind that they may appear on television, we are putting one more barrier in front of them disclosing âĦ if it happens just once that an offender is not reported on and the offender repeatedly abuses that child, I donâÄôt think that the risk is worth it.âÄù In the end, a majority of the advisory committee recommended not changing the rules and continuing the practice of banning cameras from district courts. A small minority, however, advanced a proposal that would at least allow cameras during some proceedings. Essentially, the group advocated a new rule that would place total discretion with the judge, who could prohibit cameras at any proceeding with a significant privacy at stake for the participants. After the July 1 hearing, the Court took all the materials and testimony under advisement, and released their final order on Jan. 12. The new rule: The final rule change ordered by the Court essentially did two things: It temporarily embraced the minority committeeâÄôs rule granting discretion to the trial judge, albeit with a long list of procedures where cameras would never be allowed. This includes cases involving family law, police informants, sex crimes or other closed proceedings. In addition to this change, the Court assigned the advisory committee to work together with the media groups that brought the original complaint to establish a pilot project measuring the impact that cameras have on trial participants. The court didnâÄôt give the group much for guidelines, only that it seeks âÄúeffective mechanisms for measuring the impact of camerasâÄù in the courts. In addition, this group needs to find a way to fund this pilot project at no additional cost to the judiciary. The committeeâÄôs recommendations are due in January 2010. As a proponent of open government generally, I think the new rules represent a definite step in the right direction by the Court. Although I recognize the valid concerns voiced by opponents of allowing cameras into MinnesotaâÄôs courtrooms, the blanket ban currently in place seems substantially more draconian than necessary. Of course the media groups must fight an uphill battle now to find funding for the pilot project, and they face the unenviable task of demonstrating that cameras in courtrooms donâÄôt cause irreversible harm to courtroom participants. The Court will be scrutinizing what the media does. In the meantime the rest of us, with the help of the media and their cameras, will be scrutinizing the courts. Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]