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Minnesota Supreme Court hears arguments on cameras in courtrooms

Current guidelines make it rare for media to bring recording equipment into courtrooms. Representatives from media organizations and other groups presented their cases before the high court justices after a court panel presented a report recommending the state not drastically expand camera access.

FSA Minnesota supreme court
The chambers of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Forum News Service file photo
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday, Sept. 20, heard arguments on expanding the media’s ability to bring cameras and recording equipment into the state’s courtrooms.

Representatives from media organizations and other groups presented their cases before the high court justices after a court panel presented a report recommending the state not drastically expand camera access.

Ramsey County Judge Richard Kyle, who chaired the advisory committee, presented the report to the state Supreme Court Tuesday. The panel of judges and other legal professionals raised concerns that expanding media access could have negative effects like distorting public perception of cases and polluting jury pools by creating the impression of a defendants' guilt by showing them in court before the trial has moved forward.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney with the Minnesota Newspaper Association and Minnesota Broadcasters Association, argued that there’s little evidence that expanded media access has harmed the justice system in other states, and argued it in fact could lead to greater transparency and accountability.

“If you look at the Supreme Court precedents on why public access to criminal proceedings is important, one of the most important reasons is it provides assurance to defendants in criminal cases that they are being treated fairly by the court system,” Anfinson told the seven justices.

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Multiple groups representing media organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists and the News Media Coalition, presented arguments in favor of expanded access. Prosecutors and public defenders have opposed the move, citing concerns including victim protection.

Many states have looser restrictions on TV cameras in courtrooms, including North Dakota and Wisconsin. Federal courtrooms do not allow any cameras. Minnesota allows expanded media coverage in criminal cases, but typically all parties in court must agree. Right now, media can bring cameras into the courtroom for sentencing hearings with a judge's approval but are barred from doing so in almost all other cases.

Other than the four cases connected to the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, Minnesota judges granted just one request for expanded coverage in pre-guilt proceedings since 2015, the committee found.

In 2021, Hennepin County judges allowed cameras in their courtrooms for two major cases. Judge Peter Cahill approved live media coverage in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for Floyd's murder, and Judge Regina Chu later allowed the same for the trial of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter in the shooting death of Wright.

In both cases, the judges allowed cameras in court due to the extraordinary circumstances presented by holding a trial during a pandemic and the high profile of the case.

Following the Chauvin trial, the state supreme court in June 2021 ordered a committee to review rules on cameras in court. Earlier this year, that committee opened a public input period where 13 submitted comments, with the vast majority in favor. Five of those commenters, including Anfinson, presented their cases in favor of expanded access to the court Tuesday.

Anfinson, with the newspaper and broadcasters association, argued the court should not adopt the committee's recommendations for three reasons. He claimed the findings did not have factual substantiation, said evidence shows expanded media access actually does more good, and finally that it deprives the public of the benefit of transparency.

Others argued that cameras in the courtroom can have a positive effect on the conduct of everyone involved in a courtroom. When asked by Justice Natalie Hudson about those comments, Kyle, the committee's head, said that might be the case in high-profile proceedings but not with less significant trials.

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“Everybody on that trial was on their best behavior because they knew the stakes,” he told Hudson regarding the Chauvin trial.

The new report on media access at trials is now submitted to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which will eventually hand down a decision on access.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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