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Minnesota Supreme Court orders expanded camera access in courtrooms

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The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a seismic ruling when it comes to camera and audio access inside criminal trials by expanding courtroom media coverage after decades of calls for change.

“Progress can happen. And I think it happened today,” First Amendment attorney Mark Anfinson said while still poring over the ruling issued late Wednesday morning.

Media organizations and government transparency groups have long urged the state’s highest court to keep with the times and neighboring states like Iowa and Wisconsin that routinely allow cameras in courtrooms. More than 35 states are on the same page, with Florida being the first to allow media access back in 1979.

In Minnesota, exceptions to the ban on cameras during pre-sentencing proceedings have happened only twice: the recent high profile trials of former police officers Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd and Kim Potter for the shooting death of Daunte Wright.

The pandemic and intense public interest factored into the presiding judges’ decisions to allow livestreaming of both trials, which resulted in the ex-officers’ convictions.

As it stands for the rest of the year until the change takes effect, media outlets have to request coverage for pre-guilt proceedings, such as a trial or jury selection. Trial coverage is only allowed in the rare instance when consent is given by all parties, including defense attorneys, prosecutors and the judge.

But with this change, the trial judge has full discretion over visual and audio coverage on a case-by-case basis.

“In the end, we find that the modifications… will 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,” Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in the 8-page ruling.

In a five-page dissent, Justice Ann McKeig, who is a former Hennepin County prosecutor, wrote that in those exceptional cases of Chauvin and Potter, both defendants were white.

There is no data to show if expanded camera access would negatively impact defendants of color. But McKeig said people of color are disparately punished by the criminal justice system and expanding camera access could exacerbate these already prevalent issues.

In a Supreme Court hearing on cameras in the court last September, First Amendment attorney Leita Walker said greater media access can shed a light on that overrepresentation of people of color rather than hide away from it.

BLCK Press, the local media outlet supporting journalists of color, advocated for cameras in the courtroom because it’s a tool to educate and empower communities of color.

Last year, the Minnesota Supreme Court directed its advisory committee to see if the courtroom coverage rules should be modified or expanded. The committee found 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.”

The court amended rules in recent years to allow coverage of post-guilt proceedings, such as sentencings. Anfinson said there is a growing number of requests granted for that coverage as it appears judges are more comfortable with media access at this stage in criminal proceedings,

“I think that shows that there’s going to be a carryover from that to the full trial, the full proceedings, where judges are just more comfortable with the request,” he said.

Anfinson said that judges are savvy and they see the benefits, especially in the wake of the Chauvin trial, and the wanted to embrace cameras — “not for the sake of the media, but for the sake of the court system.”

“They really do understand the benefits to the court system, to the public’s perception of how the system of justice works, how well it works, and it really does work well. It should be more visible, people should see this,” he said. “The people’s confidence in the courts will will increase when they are able to get a sense of the full spectrum of criminal court proceedings.”

Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill presided over the Chauvin trial and was one of the biggest advocates of changing camera courtroom rules to allow greater access. He wrote letters in support and Anfinson believes that played a big influence in Wednesday’s decision.

Retired Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu also told the Star Tribune that she believed media coverage was the right move in Potter’s trial.

that expanded access could negatively impact victims’ families and defendant’s families because of the “disclosure of deeply personal, embarrassing, or hurtful details” without “autonomy over the information shared.”

“Consider the parent of an adult victim in a sexual assault case being forced to publicly encounter, explain, and confront the harrowing details of their child’s assault because the trial was livestreamed; or imagine the child of a defendant who has to endure their parent being constantly vilified in the media, or questions from classmates or co-workers about gruesome details from their parent’s case,” McKeig wrote.

Victim advocate groups, such as the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Violence Free Minnesota, expressed concerns of expanding access. They believe it will discourage victims from reporting crimes and retraumatize survivors, according to the ruling.

The modified rules will continue to prohibit photos and video of victims in trial unless they explicitly consent to coverage.

This is a developing story. Check the Startribune.com for updates.


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