Why livestreamed criminal trials could become more common in Minnesota
Under new Supreme Court rules, defendants and attorneys no longer can block cameras from trials
ST. PAUL — Defendants and attorneys no longer will have the power to keep news cameras out of courtrooms during criminal trials under new rules adopted Wednesday by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Instead, it largely will be up to the judge in each case to decide whether and when audio and visual coverage is allowed in.
“This is very significant progress,” said Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment lawyer who argued for expanded access. “I was surprised. For more than 30 years, the Supreme Court has been quite resistant to changing Minnesota’s rules on cameras in the courtrooms in any significant way.”
Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote that the new rules for the state’s trial courts, which take effect Jan. 1, “will promote transparency and confidence in the basic fairness that is an essential component of our system of justice in Minnesota.”
Review of rules
The justices in June 2021 began a review of their 5-year-old rules governing audio-visual coverage of criminal proceedings. That move came after the livestreamed trial of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder and during a pandemic that made the court system more comfortable with cameras.
The court’s old rules allowed cameras during criminal trials only “with the consent of all parties.” Except for the trials of Chauvin and another police officer, Kim Potter, Minnesota courts had denied camera access in 30 cases and approved only one since the trial courts began experimenting with cameras in 2015.
During that same time, news cameras were allowed at around 200 sentencing hearings. Under the old rules, there was a presumption that sentencings, unlike trials, would be open to cameras unless the judge had good reason to block them.
Last June, most members of a Supreme Court advisory committee recommended against major changes to the courtroom access rules. They noted that while news media and their allies support increased camera coverage, most attorneys, judges and victims advocates oppose it.
“Asking people to relive the worst moments of their lives and then broadcasting it will have an impact, and it will make it more difficult to get justice,” the committee wrote.
Minnesota Supreme Court sides with news media
However, the Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with the news media, observing that most public comments they received favor increased access to the courts.
“The public commenters advocated in favor of more transparency, greater public trust, and broader accessibility, all of which are important factors to consider here,” Gildea wrote.
Anfinson said the livestreaming of the Chauvin trial restored in the public a sense of confidence in the justice system, and “the judges noticed those things.” He noted that the trial judge, Peter Cahill, was among those urging the Supreme Court to expand camera access.
“I really think that had a big impact,” Anfinson said.
Gildea noted that even under the new rules, Minnesota still will be providing less access than many other states. For example, cameras still aren’t allowed during jury selection or any pretrial hearings, such as arraignment and bail hearings.
Although Wednesday’s order opens the door to greater access, it still will be up to the judge in each case, and there is no presumption that cameras should be allowed in during trials.
Further, the justices added more protections for certain people involved in court proceedings.
Going forward, the judges must consider whether the victim wants camera coverage, not just the attorneys and defendants.
Witnesses and sex crime victims still will have the power to keep cameras out during their testimony, and cameras never will be allowed to show any minor victims, defendants or witnesses.
Judges also must keep cameras out in situations where there’s “a substantial likelihood that coverage would expose any victim or witness who may testify at trial to harm, threats of harm, or intimidation.”
“Ultimately, district court judges retain broad discretion to allow or disallow visual and audio coverage under the modified rules,” Gildea wrote.
Associate Justice Anne McKeig issued a dissent on Wednesday. She wrote that camera coverage could negatively impact communities of color, who make up a disproportionate share of criminal defendants, and she noted that attorneys and judges overwhelmingly oppose increased access.
“It is difficult to support expansion of camera access in the courtroom when the practitioners who regularly encounter these rules do not support expansion,” she wrote.
Anfinson said the new Minnesota rules won’t provide as much access as those in neighboring states, but he expects that will change in time.
“There’s a lot of really good judges in this state who aren’t afraid of cameras, who see the benefits to both the court system and the general public,” he said. “We’re going to start learning in this state that it’s not a problem … and I’m very confident that they’re going to remove some of those guardrails.”