Supreme Court weighs keeping cameras in criminal courtrooms

Minnesota Supreme court hearing on cameras in courts.
Attorney Max Keller and Minnesota Bar Association president Sonia Miller-Van Oort tells the Minnesota Supreme Court the bar association opposes expanding the use of cameras in courts at a hearing at the State Capitol on Wednesday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The Minnesota Supreme Court held a hearing Wednesday on extending a pilot program that has allowed video cameras and audio recordings in criminal courtrooms.

Six justices heard arguments for and against the experiment in an hour long administrative hearing at the State Capitol.

A state court committee that studied Minnesota's pilot program recommended that it be included as a permanent part of the state's court rules, with some minor changes.

Appeals court Judge Michelle Larkin, chair of the committee studying the matter, told the court that there have been no significant problems reported during the testing period in the small sample of cases studied. The pilot program has allowed cameras and recording in sentencing hearings, in post-conviction matters.

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"The sky has not fallen," Larkin told the justices. She said judges and the media seem to be negotiating the test without disruption, and that there does seem to be some benefit. "We simply did not see anything inflammatory," she said. "It was pretty dry actually."

The most significant opposition came from the state's bar association, which asked the court not to adopt the pilot program. The bar association said it remained concerned that the prospect of being on TV may deter victims from reporting crimes or going to court.

Although the rules currently call for the permission of victims to be recorded in court, attorney Max Keller said attorneys worried that it wouldn't stay that way. He also argued that brief television clips of proceedings didn't really illuminate court proceedings, and coverage that makes its way online wouldn't reflect pardons, overturned convictions or other proceedings.

"Once the bell is rung, it can't be unrung," Keller argued.

Several justices weighed in skeptically on the idea: Justice Natalie Hudson asked repeatedly what assurances the media could offer that coverage wouldn't disproportionately focus on minority defendants. She added that she shares former "Justice (Alan) Page's concern would over-represent particularly young African American men as violent."

Justice Anne McKeig expressed her concern that television coverage could unnecessarily stigmatize the families and children of criminal defendants. "I worry about that sort of unintended consequence," she told one advocate for letting cameras show more of Minnesota's courtroom proceedings.

Other justices were more supportive. One noted comments from a Duluth television station that argued the current rules often relegate coverage to crime scene videos and mug shots taken during arrests.

"I don't think I've ever seen a mug shot that is beautiful or handsome," Justice Margaret Chutich responded.

Supporters testified that the courts would do the public a service by being more transparent and open and letting the public easily see what was going on behind, what are mostly, closed doors now.

"There are reams of wonderful glorious generalities, on the value of public access to criminal cases," attorney Mark Anfinson said. "If you could allow the full criminal proceeding to be recorded, posted on a website, and watched, it would do wonders for the confidence people have in the judicial system. And that wouldn't just benefit the media. That would benefit... prosecutors, the defense bar, victims, witnesses, and minority groups, whose confidence in the judicial system and understanding of how it works would be enormously improved."

Anfinson also said that dozens of other states have managed to incorporate cameras into judicial proceedings.

Hal Davis, a retired Pioneer Press editor and representative of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), urged the court to go even farther than just adopting the pilot program. He said full access could cure many of the critiques of media coverage of courts, like showing only the most sensational aspects of cases.

"MNCOGI believes it's time for the people to see what goes on in the people's courtrooms," Davis said.

The court heard arguments for an hour in its historic State Capitol courtroom, all addressing whether the court committee's recommendation should be adopted. The appointment of Justice David Stras to a federal appeals court left just six justices available for Wednesday's arguments. Former legislator Paul Thissen won't join the court until May 14.

It isn't clear when the court will issue a ruling.

Correction (April 26, 2018): An earlier version of this story misidentified the party subject to questioning by Justice Anne McKeig as an attorney.