Advocates for expanded camera access in state courtrooms reiterated their case to the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday, arguing that antiquated rules barring such media hinder the public's understanding and trust in the justice system.
For decades, media organizations and government transparency groups have urged the state's highest court to change rules and keep with the times. Since the late 1970s, more than 35 states routinely allow coverage of criminal proceedings. In Minnesota, exceptions to the rule have happened only twice: the recent high profile trials of former police officers Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter.
But while an advisory committee is recommending the Supreme Court maintain the camera ban, the committee chair said after Tuesday's hearing that some amendments seem likely.
"The justices do seem receptive to making changes," said chair and Ramsey County Judge Richard Kyle. "But there's a range of options."
Groups in support of cameras in the courtroom are asking the court to make media coverage the presumption with district judges allowed to make exceptions to that rule. The opposite exists today, where media outlets have to request coverage that is rarely granted for pre-guilt proceedings, such as a trial or jury selection.
In recent years, the court amended rules to allow coverage of post-guilt proceedings, such as sentencing, as well audio and visual recordings in civil, Supreme Court and appellate cases while media can request coverage in criminal proceedings.
Hal Davis, speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, noted that the public could watch a livestream of Tuesday's hearing.
"You might consider the livestream of the Chauvin and Potter trials a pilot program thrust upon the court system by circumstance of the pandemic," Davis said. "As judges [Peter] Cahill and [Regina] Chu reported, the court system performed admirably."
The committee — comprising prosecutors, defense lawyers, public defenders, court administration and judges — favors no changes to the rules but offered a roadmap to the court if it decides to go that route.
As it stands today, criminal trial coverage is allowed when consent is given by defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge. But the panel found all-party consent has happened only once and Kyle said on Tuesday the request has since been reversed.
Kyle said the committee is recommending that coverage be allowed only in exceptional cases such as Chauvin. And if coverage is left to the discretion of the judge, thereby dropping the all-party consent rule, the court should consider a list of factors on whether coverage would violate defendants' rights.
Justice Natalie Hudson asked Kyle if the panel found during its research whether anything went "horribly wrong" in any state that allows expanded coverage, or if there were any cases the panel could point to that highlight what some of those problems could be.
Kyle said he could not cite an example, only cautionary tales from some states while noting more research is needed.
First Amendment attorney Mark Anfinson said there is virtually no evidence of cameras disrupting criminal cases in the majority of states where they allow cameras.
The panel wrote in its report that cameras could negatively affect behavior of those in the court proceeding, but Hudson said some of the statements in support of cameras argue that coverage could have the opposite effect with people on their best behavior.
JusticeAnne McKeig asked several speakers about the disproportionate number of people of color represented in the criminal justice system and how cameras could negatively influence that further.
First Amendment attorney Leita Walker said that it's important for communities of color to trust the system and shed a light on that overrepresentation.
"We shouldn't hide from that," she said. "It's important for people to see that."
Walker also noted the letter from Blck Press, a local media outlet that supports journalists of color. Leaders of the outlet wrote to the court in support of cameras in the courtroom, saying that Chauvin's trial educated and empowered communities of color by engaging with the judicial process.
"The broadcast was, for many, their first experience with a criminal trial. They saw firsthand its strengths and its weaknesses, and realized the power of representation and participation — particularly when it comes to jury selection," Blck Press wrote, adding that public access to criminal proceedings is "crucial to the future well-being of our community."
McKeig said that coverage could mean victims or witnesses could be further harassed on social media, but Walker said there is a difference between the news media and social media. "The court cannot control what happens on social media," Walker said.
Other concerns expressed by justices include courts' ability and resources to accommodate media coverage, and that coverage of pre-trial hearings could potentially taint a jury pool and make it difficult to find an unbiased jury.
But media is already allowed to cover these proceedings; they just can't make video or audio recordings. Anfinson suggested that the court implement a pilot project to study how urban and rural courts handle expanded media access.
He added that district judges are the "firewall" of any potential issues, especially when it comes to coverage of witnesses and victims. Already, minors and victims are not allowed to be on camera without consent.
Justice Paul Thissen asked Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian if there is a generational shift in how people consume the news with more people gravitating toward videos and livestreams rather than printed newspapers.
Dardarian said that is the case and news consumers have come to expect photos and videos in media coverage.
"If you want to show people what's going on in government, you have to show it," she said.
Kyle said while he was in the minority of speakers Tuesday, he looks forward to hearing the what the court decides.
"People have strong feelings about this issue," he said. "It's an important issue and I'm confident that the court will give it due consideration."