Media seeks cameras in courts

ST. PAUL -- The public may be closer to watching a Minnesota court case unfold on television and seeing newspaper photographs captured during trials.

ST. PAUL -- The public may be closer to watching a Minnesota court case unfold on television and seeing newspaper photographs captured during trials.

That's the hope of news media representatives who on Friday sought to persuade a Minnesota Supreme Court advisory committee to recommend changing what essentially is a ban on the use of video and still cameras and audio recorders in state courtrooms.

Under current rules, a judge and all parties involved in a case must agree to allow cameras in a courtroom, which virtually never happens.

That restriction on electronic coverage has left the public "frozen out" of seeing what occurs in a courtroom, media attorney Mark Anfinson told the panel.

The state last considered broadening courtroom media coverage 20 years ago. Cameras and audio recorders have changed considerably in the past two decades and are no longer bulky or obtrusive, Anfinson said. Some courtrooms already are equipped with recording equipment used by judicial staff.


Skeptics of a rule change allowing cameras worry it could jeopardize the privacy of victims and witness testimony, but advocates said those issues can be accommodated.

"The benefits plainly outweigh the disadvantages," Anfinson said.

The proposal would eliminate the state's requirement of consent before cameras can be used, institute a presumption that electronic and photographic coverage is allowed and give judges discretion over camera and audio use. Most court proceedings are open to the public and to reporters.

Minnesota District Court Judge Steven Cahill of Moorhead, who serves on the advisory committee, said he is leaning toward recommending cameras be allowed in courtrooms.

"It's time we move into the 21st Century," Cahill said, suggesting it could start with a pilot program in a limited number of courtrooms.

Opening courtrooms to electronic coverage would strengthen the public's confidence with its court system, he said, dismissing claims it could lead to "grandstanding" in front of cameras by attorneys and others.

About 35 states have more lenient regulations than Minnesota involving cameras in the courtroom, including North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Cahill said he understands that North Dakota judges whose courtroom proceedings have been covered by electronic media were satisfied.

The committee asked advocates of a rule change to help define who would qualify as media members, citing the growing prevalence of cellular phone cameras and Internet bloggers who do not work for mainstream news organizations.


There are other concerns. Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Barry Anderson, who listened to the testimony Friday, wondered whether TV and radio coverage would focus only on sensational trial details, possibly leaving the public with the wrong impression about a case.

After the hearing, Anderson said when he was a practicing attorney, he was skeptical of having cameras in the courtroom. However, Anderson said it was helpful to hear from a judge who has experience with electronic coverage of court proceedings, and said he now is "open-minded about it."

"We'll have to see how it unfolds," Anderson said.

The committee will discuss the issue again next month before sending a recommendation to the Supreme Court. Anderson said the state's high court likely will hold its own public hearing before making a decision, probably sometime in 2008.

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