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Editorial: Expand public access in Minnesota courts

Three decades in the making. That’s how significant and historic the moment was Tuesday when news cameras were allowed, for the first time, inside a criminal courtroom in Northeastern Minnesota.

Unprecedented public access and new insights into the otherwise sometimes-mysterious world of criminal justice. That’s what the moment offered and why it was hugely important to all of us.

“We have been debating and talking about (this) in the judicial branch for 30 years,” Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said in an interview. “This has not been our tradition in Minnesota, that cameras are allowed in the courtroom, so it’s a big culture shift. So baby steps are appropriate, I think, and that’s what the court is doing. … We’re putting our toe in the water with criminal cases. I think it’s really important from a transparency standpoint, though, that we take this step.”

Minnesota’s first toe in the water came with a pilot project involving civil cases. “We changed that rule first … for, I don’t know, a year (or) year and a half. And it seemed to work fine,” Gildea said. “So we said, ‘Well, let’s see if there’s a way we can do it in criminal cases as well. Is there some way we can put our toe in the water on criminal cases and just see?’ ”

A criminal rules advisory committee looked into it and recommended the pilot program that led to Tuesday’s historic moment. Not that cameras ever weren’t allowed to capture criminal proceedings. “The rule in Minnesota for some time has been that cameras — video, audio recording — can come into the criminal courtroom with the consent of the judge and both sides,” Gildea explained. “That has essentially meant that it never happened. Both sides and the judge never agreed.”

The pilot program now allowing cameras to record criminal proceedings has limitations, including access only after a conviction or guilty plea. The identities of witnesses also, appropriately, are being protected. If the pilot program finds few problems, video and still-photography access could be expanded.

For now, “We’re going to get some data to find out whether there’s an impact on the justice system or not, good or bad. That’s what we want to find out,” Gildea said. “We’re very mindful that there are very real concerns, (including) from the victim/witness community (and) from law enforcement. We don’t want to inhibit the reporting of crime.”

Neighboring states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, already allow cameras inside courtrooms.

Attitudes about cameras in courtrooms seem to be shifting on a national level, too. Fourteen federal trial courts participated in a four-year pilot program similar to Minnesota’s that concluded this past July. The Judicial Conference is expected to crunch the data gathered during the past four years and consider recommendations at its March session.

In addition, a Sunshine in the Courtroom Act to expand camera access to judicial proceedings was introduced in Congress in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009. “Sunshine” is a term often used when referring to the need to shine a light on what government is doing as a way of watchdogging and preventing wrongdoing.

The public can welcome and cheer the unprecedented access this week to our criminal justice system. The more we’re able to monitor and clearly see what government is doing the more likely it is to do the right things.

In the judicial branch of government, more public access can help assure appropriate proceedings and fair treatment — and can do so without derailing justice and without violating anyone’s privacy or rights, including the right of a defendant to a fair trial.

-Duluth News Tribune