MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — From George Zimmerman, to Casey Anthony to O.J. Simpson, we’re captivated by real-life courtroom drama.
Thirty-six states allow nearly full access for still and video cameras in the courts, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association. So why isn’t Minnesota in that group?
Why are cameras effectively banned from Minnesota courtrooms?
“To be honest with you, I think there are lawyers and judges who historically haven’t liked the media,” said Kevin Burke, Hennepin County District Court judge and former chief judge for the county.
Minnesota has never allowed still or video cameras in the courtroom. However, reporters are allowed.
“The founding fathers believed in open courts. They didn’t debate whether there should be quill pens with journalists,” he noted.
There are always fears raised when the topic comes up, he said. What if trials become a circus? What if lawyers perform for the cameras instead of the jury?
“The argument something bad is going to happen is over. You look at Wisconsin, 30 years of experience. You look at Iowa, 30 years of experience,” he said. “Nothing bad has happened.”
In fact, Burke said he thinks the lack of cameras in courtrooms is actually hurting the perception of Minnesota’s courts.
“I think it’s hurting the judiciary, it’s hurting the judiciary a lot. I think now, more than ever, the people of Minnesota need to see how their judges act,” he said.
Journalists are allowed to cover court cases, of course, but in Minnesota they’re allowed to come into court with a pen, not with a camera.
“There’s nothing that prohibits a TV station from sending someone to make bad sketches in a courtroom. I think good pictures are better than bad sketches,” he said.
In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the presence of cameras is not a denial of 6th Amendment right to a fair trial. That’s when many states started opening their courts.
In 1983, Minnesota’s courts decided to allow cameras if the judge, and prosecutor, and defendant agree. And that virtually never happens.
“They’re more than willing to perform on camera in a staged way for their political game, yet they’re afraid to show the people of Minnesota how they perform in a courtroom,” said Burke.
But some victim’s advocates worry that the threat of being in a televised court proceeding will be a real issue.
“We just don’t want there to be another barrier for people to access the system for fear they’ll end up on television,” said Caroline Palmer, an attorney for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Palmer joined journalists on a panel discussion on the issue of cameras in the courtroom sponsored by the Minnesota Society for Professional Journalists and the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center for Ethics.
She said victims already ask, “Am I going to have to go testify? If I have to go testify, am I going to be in the media?”
Burke said some judges worry, as well.
“Occasionally judges misbehave on the bench. They’re crass, sarcastic, not polite. I think the sunlight of journalists reduces that behavior. I think it makes us all better,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t allow video or still cameras inside oral arguments, but they do now release audio recordings. One recording from arguments over the Obama Health Care Law already made its way into a negative ad posted by the national Republican Party.
“You’re a really good journalist,” said Burke, “but Nancy Grace — who I use by name — isn’t. I would rather have him with a camera than Nancy Grace twisting what I said and showing that to the public.”
There is a pilot program right now in Minnesota that allows cameras into civil cases. WCCO-TV was the first station to cover a civil trial in March.
Burke thinks that since neighboring states have 30 years of experience with cameras in courts, a pilot program isn’t going to change a lot of minds.
As for sensitive cases, like sexual assault, the media doesn’t identify victims now. The same would hold true with video.