Editorial Roundup: Cameras in courtrooms critical for transparency

Published 8:50 pm Friday, September 30, 2022

The apex of the unraveling of civil society could come one day with the courts, given the injustice that dwells there, where transparency is often distant and confidence is waning.

So it should be in the interest of jurists and others to open the courts, to shine light on the justice and injustice and allow the governed to see in what ways and circumstances freedom is lost. To experience that in Minnesota now, one has to physically go to a courtroom, during working hours and spend long spans of time figuring out what procedure matters.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

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The Minnesota Supreme Court heard testimony last week urging it to expand its narrow rule, which currently only allows cameras in courtrooms once a trial has ended. Cameras are allowed only at sentencings, and even then there are restrictions, some of which seem unfair. Victims can opt out of being photographed, defendants cannot.

The efforts to open courts to cameras has been years long, as the courts considered a pilot project of limited degree. A committee commissioned by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea was tasked about a year ago with examining the results of the pilot program and recommending to the Supreme Court if the program should be expanded.

The committee, made up of judges, lawyers and victims’ advocates, but no journalists, took testimony and statements from journalists, defense lawyers, prosecutors and victims’ advocates over a year-long process. It recommended to the Supreme Court that use of cameras should not be expanded.

The Supreme Court took testimony last week from six people (including Free Press Managing Editor Joe Spear and Star Tribune Editor Suki Dardarian). Five represented the media and the public and the other was the judge who presided over the committee.

While the preponderance of evidence, overwhelming at times, showed there was no harm done to the institution of justice and no harm or complaints in any of the cases where cameras where allowed, the committee recommended against expansion stating there “could” be disruptions to trials and there “could” be harm to victims and there “could” be a tainting of the jury pool. But no evidence of such harm was provided.

Beyond the seven-year pilot program where much information and experience was gathered, recent high profile cases in the George Floyd murder and Daunte Wright manslaughter cases were livestreamed in their entirety, serving as another significant experiment of use in cameras in courts.

Judge Peter Cahill, who presided over the trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of Floyd, told the committee and the Supreme Court that while he once was against use of cameras in the court room, he now was much in favor of it. Cahill wrote to the committee and court that “State v. Chauvin has changed my opinion such 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.”

With that, we could easily rest our case, but the court’s decision is still very much uncertain.

Ramsey County District Judge Richard H. Kyle Jr., who presided over the committee that took volumes of testimony and dug deep to study the issue, told the Star Tribune after the hearing that there may be some further opening of camera access.

Courts are one of the most powerful institutions in American democracy. They decide freedom of the governed every day. The governed should be able to easily see how that works.

Expanded camera access to include trials will build trust in the judicial system, enlighten the people and serve democracy. In the end, the truth is the truth. A camera doesn’t change that; it only shows it.

Mankato Free Press, Sept. 25

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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