Editorial: Open the courts to cameras

Published 9:34 am Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Court is called court for a reason. It is supposed to be open and visible for all to see the proceedings.

Otherwise, the proceeding would take place in a chamber and be called chamber, as in a judge’s chamber. The visibility is meant to show the public that the defendants receive due process — not railroaded like in China or in the famed Star Chamber of the British monarchy, abolished in 1641.

Whatever adjectives go in front of the noun court — district, appellate, supreme, federal, criminal, civil, administrative, traffic, trial, family — it is still a proceeding meant to take place in front of the people. But the right of the people to follow the court proceedings is at times compromised by judges who are too reluctant to embrace modern technology, technology that can bring the court proceedings to a busy public.

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Such is the case in Minnesota, where, for all practical purposes, cameras have not been allowed in courtrooms, in spite of the fact that neighboring states allow cameras and have few, if any, problems with cases as a result.

For instance, people all across Iowa or anywhere in the world watched online over news websites in March 2009 when Mark Becker was convicted of shooting Aplington-Parkersburg High School football coach Ed Thomas. That was open court, the way it truly should be — visible to the people who pay for the courts to exist, many of whom bear the cost of imprisoning Becker for life. They have a stake in the outcome of court actions and have the right to watch.

It’s high time for the Minnesota Supreme Court to allow cameras in the Minnesota courts much in the same way as other states. Indeed, it is sensible to have rules about media being unobtrusive and using pool coverage. Members of the media have proven successful at obeying these rules in other states, and there is no reason to believe they would behave otherwise in this state.

We commend the Supreme Court for its two-year pilot project to allow cameras in some civil cases. It’s a baby step.

So why the reluctance? Perhaps because people in law enforcement — which includes the judiciary — often find themselves dealing with the worst sides of society, they end up mistrusting the general populace. But the courts indeed should trust the people to do right. Courts should embrace having them learn about the law through better means than, for instance, TV shows.

For a state that prides itself as leading the way, it sure is behind the times on photography and videography in the courtrooms.