Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has wisely issued a ruling that expands camera and audio coverage of courtroom proceedings.
The decision has been long in the making, coming after decades of calls to modify what had become an outdated policy. Florida was the first state to permit broad video and audio access to court proceedings in 1979. More than 35 states now allow access, including neighbors Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board has been among the many entities seeking such coverage, persuaded long ago that the benefits of transparency would outweigh potential disadvantages. The track record showing that modern technology can open a window onto court proceedings without being disruptive is a strong one.
Minnesota's restrictions have been easing over time, most notably in civil cases. In criminal cases typically all parties, including the judge, prosecutor, defense and others, must agree to video coverage, and that is a rarity. Under the new ruling, which takes effect in January, the judge in each case will have broad discretion.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, writing for the majority, said it was the court's finding that the change would "promote transparency and confidence in the basic fairness that is an essential component of our system of justice in Minnesota and protect the constitutional rights and safety of all participants in criminal proceedings in the state."
One recent high-profile exception to the state's restrictions was in the 2021 trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of the murder of George Floyd. Presiding Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill, despite initial reservations, opened the proceedings over the objections of defense attorneys, prosecutors and victims' rights groups, in part because of intense and widespread public and media interest in the case, coupled with the limitations of the pandemic.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said his own thoughts on cameras in the courtroom have evolved. "I've gone from really being against it to really being in favor," he told an editorial writer. "I used to think it might intimidate witnesses. But the real effect has been to educate the public about how courts work." The Chauvin case, Ellison said, was one of the instances that helped change his mind. "People really understood what was going on," he said. "They could see for themselves what was happening. Having cameras in the courtroom, I'm convinced, has the potential to instill trust."
And rather than playing to the cameras, he said, "we find that most lawyers really get on their p's and q's, because they know everything is being recorded."
Not every justice on the court agreed with the ruling. Justice Anne McKeig, a former Hennepin County prosecutor, wrote a dissenting opinion that said expanding access could worsen a tendency for the criminal justice system to issue disparate sentences to persons of color, although she acknowledged that there is no data in support of that assumption.
Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment attorney who has represented the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said in a Star Tribune story that judges increasingly would see the benefits and want camera coverage, "not for the sake of the media, but for the sake of the court systems." Like Ellison, he believes that "the people's confidence in the courts will increase when they are able to get a sense of the full spectrum of criminal court proceedings."
Anfinson believes that letters in support written by Cahill, reflecting his experience presiding over the livestreamed Chauvin trial, factored into the high court's decision. Millions watched the trial worldwide.
Cahill later told an advisory committee that "I now believe cameras in the courtroom can be helpful in promoting trust and confidence in the judicial process and are sometimes necessary to safeguard both the defendant's right to a public trial and the public's right of access to criminal trials." Cahill did note that he continued to believe in a judge's right to close proceedings when necessary.
The Supreme Court's decision is an important and courageous one, and continues to give judges some discretion. It should enhance needed transparency and greater understanding for all.