Justice served in the open

Allowing cameras and recording devices in court could increase public understanding.

Advocates of government openness were given reason to hope last month when an advisory panel to the Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments on whether to allow cameras and recording devices in the state’s courtrooms.

While it is technically possible under current law for cameras or tape recorders to be allowed inside a courtroom, it rarely happens because the presiding judge, defense attorney and prosecuting attorney all have the right to veto their presence.

The proposal under consideration, sponsored by a number of Minnesota news organizations, would change the rule to allow audio and video coverage inside the courtroom unless a judge determines there is a compelling reason to keep them out, such as to protect the identity of a child witness or undercover police officers.

Some have raised the concern that the presence of cameras could trivialize courtroom proceedings, but we believe the opportunity to increase public knowledge about how this crucial gear in our government operates far outweighs the risks. Minnesota is one of only 16 states that essentially bans recording devices.

The presence of cameras would no more delegitimize the work done in courts than the presence of C-SPAN has delegitimized Congress. (It’s the members who have done that.) Our tax dollars pay for the operation of the judiciary just like any other part of the state, and the public has a right to know what happens in court whether that means finding out through both a reporter’s pen and notepad, and the lens of the camera.

The judicial branch, with its arcane language and sometimes serpentine logic, is inherently the least understood of the three branches of our government. But this proposal offers the possibility of shedding some light where there has, until now, been darkness for most of the news-consuming public.

We are reminded of James Madison’s quip that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” It’s time that this overly restrictive bar on popular information is lifted.