The implementation of the new cameras-in-the courtroom policy by the state courts is off to a slow start. Approved in August by the Supreme Court, the initiative went into effect in November. It removes some long-established restrictions on cameras and other video and audio recording devices in Minnesota state court proceedings, but their usage remains subject to a number of limitations. Order Promulgating Amendments to the Minnesota General Rules of Practice, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 639 (8/12/2015). It follows the expiration of a more limited pilot program adopted in 1983, which allowed cameras in civil proceedings with approval of the presiding judge.
The new policy was approved over the lone dissent of retiring Justice Alan Page, who feared expanding media access to criminal proceedings would aggravate existing “unfair coverage” and exacerbate racial bias, without any corresponding benefits, which he regarded as “speculative [or] nonexistent.” But the rest of his colleagues joined Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, who felt that courtroom cameras would not “produce prejudicial media coverage” and gave the green light to the expansion, subject to prohibitions on sex abuse matters, family court cases, juvenile proceedings, witness testimony, and any proceedings in which a jury is present. These restrictions as a protocol matter probably will limit coverage to sentencing and other post-trial proceedings and appeals.
The rule is much more restrictive than some other jurisdictions, such as California, as exemplified by the wide-open television coverage of the O.J. Simpson criminal case 20 years ago, and even neighboring Wisconsin, where witness testimony is allowed to be covered, not concealed.
A novel twist on the issue of television court proceedings is asserted in a case pending before the court of appeals in MacDonald Shimota v. State, No. A14-1991. A vehicle driver convicted in Dakota County District Court of obstructing law enforcement personnel and refusal to submit to a breath test, while acquitted of DWI, asserts that she was denied a public trial under the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its parallel Minnesota state constitution provision, Article I, §6, because the trial judge refused her request to allow a television camera in the court room.
The case raises an issue of first impression, which a panel of appellate court judges wrestled with at the appellate hearing in mid-November. A decision, which could affect the way the new cameras-in-the-courtroom policy is carried out, will be made by Valentine’s Day. Regardless of the ruling, the justices will review the new courtroom cameras policy again in 2018.
Published in Bench & Bar of Minnesota.