The trials of ex-police Minnesota officers Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter were viewed by millions of people around the globe. But for the last three decades it's been up for debate whether cameras should have a permanent place inside Minnesota courtrooms.
The argument has been settled in a majority of states — including neighboring Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota — that routinely allow audio and visual coverage of criminal proceedings. The Minnesota Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in support of joining the majority.
An advisory committee made up of Minnesota judges, attorneys and court personnel is recommending the court continue keeping cameras out — with a few exceptions. Organizations representing hundreds of local and national Minnesota media outlets, including the Star Tribune, as well as groups that support government transparency say that 21st century technology inside courtrooms is long overdue.
First Amendment attorney Mark Anfinson said the issue of cameras in the court was brought to national awareness in 1979 when the Florida Supreme Court issued an order allowing "very broad and liberal audio and video access."
"And that was a real bell ringer because up to that point virtually nowhere in the country was that allowed," Anfinson said. "The news media in Minnesota attempted several times to convince the Minnesota Supreme Court to join that movement, but it didn't happen."
For the high-profile trials of Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and Potter for the killing of Daunte Wright, the presiding Hennepin County District Court judges were initially opposed to cameras in the courtroom. Both judges, Peter Cahill and Regina Chu, were convinced in the end that it was the right decision, in part because of immense public interest and COVID-19 limitations.
Media and government organizations, along with Cahill, submitted letters to the Supreme Court in support of expanded camera access, but victims' rights groups, public defenders, defense attorneys and prosecutors are opposed.
"The fact of the matter is that these are incredibly emotional times, difficult times for all the parties that are involved," said Minnesota State Public Defender Bill Ward. "Justice should not be a spectator sport and should not be something that's sensationalized in the news media."
Ward said Chauvin's trial failed to prove "that it can be done well."
"What I saw were pundits talking about various aspects of the trial ... basically acting as armchair lawyers for hours on end as the trial went on," he said.
Journalists across the state are inside courtrooms every day covering jury selection, criminal and civil hearings, trials and court appearances.
Like members of the public, reporters have to comply with the same strict rules that ban the use of cellphones in court. This also applies to broadcast television cameras, audio recordings and still photography unless all parties — defense attorneys, prosecution and the presiding judge — agree to allow it.
The rules on cameras in the courtroom have been amended over the years, mostly notably after 2008 when media organizations made their strongest effort to convince the Minnesota Supreme Court that more transparency and media coverage should be the law.
Incremental changes followed when the court adopted some exceptions in 2009, notably dropping the all-party consent requirement when it comes to civil proceedings. Only a judge has to authorize consent. A few years ago the court expanded that to all post-guilty proceedings.
Anfinson and other media groups are asking the court to at the very least apply that ruling to all criminal cases and leave it up to the judge because all-party consent never happens.
Media may submit notices to cover proceedings before and after a finding on guilt. The advisory committee found that since 2015, there have been 383 coverage notices submitted and 117 of the notices for post-guilty coverage were denied. Only one of the 31 pre-guilty notices was granted.
The Minnesota Supreme Court last year directed its advisory committee to see if the courtroom coverage rules should be modified or expanded, rather than being petitioned by the media to take up the issue.
The committee opened a public comment period and 13 letters were submitted, with all but two in support of camera expansion. Of those, four representatives will present 10-minute arguments at the State Capitol on Tuesday.
The arguments are the same as they have been for decades. The committee notes they argue overall that "coverage increases public access, promotes transparency, and fosters public trust and confidence in the judicial system."
But the committee finds that the "presence of cameras distorts the process that people may behave differently" and that "brief snippets of coverage by the media shed no real light on what happens in the course of a criminal case and provide no real public educational value." It added that media coverage could have "more of a harmful than positive impact on public trust and confidence in the judicial system."
Concerns over expanding recording access, in part, centers on protecting witnesses, victims and jurors. Existing rules don't allow audio and visual recordings of child custody and protection proceedings, marriage dissolutions, juvenile and paternity cases and petition orders for protection.
Observers of the Chauvin and Potter trials never saw members of the jury or witnesses, especially minors, who didn't give their explicit consent to being on camera. But the committee said the Chauvin trial was a "once in a century case" that involved willing witnesses and should not be the standard moving forward.
The committee believes that coverage could negatively influence witnesses by deterring them from testifying. This concern is held by the directors of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Violence Free Minnesota, who wrote to the court that they "support the continued prohibition of cameras in courtroom of sexual assault cases."
"Even in this #MeToo era of heightened awareness about sexual harassment and sexual violence, we see survivors encounter disbelief and outright hostility when they go public," the directors wrote.
Anfinson said that the rules already protect victims from having to testify on camera.
An overwhelming theme from the committee's recommendation is the opinion that media tends to "only cover exceptional cases," which doesn't reflect what the justice system does every day. Rather, they find coverage should be "wholistic and realistic," by including so-called "mundane cases" to avoid the potential to "inflame the public with fear about crime."
Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian wrote to the Supreme Court that such assertions are untrue and "an insult to the many journalists in this state who diligently work to cover the news fairly and accurately, with context and empathy, journalists who care deeply about their community and have demonstrated that commitment with grace and strength, particularly over the past few years."
Dardarian urged the court to find a way to "balance the right to a fair trial with the right to a free press."
But the committee stands by the concerns of its constituents, including victims' rights groups and the Minnesota District Judges' Association.
The association's "long-standing position on this issue remains unchanged: we strenuously object to any modifications," wrote Judge Lois Conroy in the association's letter to the court.
"Justice is best administered on a case-by-case basis," Conroy added, "particularly when determining whether audio or visual recordings are appropriate."
Mankato Free Press Managing Editor Joe Spear wrote to the court that the presence of a camera doesn't change the truth.
"It only shines more light on it."