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Guest Editorial: Expand camera access to courtrooms

For more than 30 years, every state bordering Minnesota — Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota — has allowed cameras in its courtrooms, boosting the public's understanding of legal proceedings and its confidence in the criminal-justice system.

And how many documented instances have there been of a witness or victim reluctant to come forward for fear of being on camera?

Zero, according to Mark Anfinson, a lawyer for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

"There's a huge database of experience — (with) no problems, no difficulties, nothing that can't readily be managed to balance the benefit of public access," Anfinson said Friday in an interview with the News Tribune.

Anfinson testified earlier last week before the House Public Safety and Security Committee about a pilot program in Minnesota that has been allowing video coverage of court sentencings. Like the experiences of our neighbors, the two-year trial period turned up zero problems with the willingness of witnesses or victims to participate in court proceedings, he said. Such concerns long have dogged allowing cameras in courtrooms.

But rather than expanding video access in Minnesota courtrooms, lawmakers, inexplicably, drafted a bill to halt all state funding for audio and video coverage of criminal-court proceedings. And then it got worse. After the committee hearing a week ago today, where all the same unsubstantiated concerns were brought up again, the bill was rewritten to prohibit criminal-court video recording unless everyone in the courtroom — including the defendant, the defense lawyers, the prosecutor, the victim and even the witnesses under subpoena agreed.

Fat chance of that ever happening. The bill essentially would end Minnesota's experiment with criminal-courtroom cameras, despite all the benefits that come from their presence.

Lawmakers can consider facts this session and reject this bill.

"The specific concerns they voice are legitimate concerns. Let's be clear about that. Nobody wants to deter victims of crime from coming forward or witnesses from testifying or anything like that. But those concerns have been raised and presented to the Supreme Court for almost 10 years," Anfinson said. "The purpose of these pilot projects has been to carefully study, in the real world in actual court proceedings, whether these types of concerns can be managed (and) can be addressed properly. And the conclusion is irrefutable. There have been no problems under the rules the Supreme Court established. So to keep raising these types of complaints as if they're going to happen simply flies in the face of factual reality."

The bill now making its way through St. Paul appears destined for a constitutional challenge, too. The Minnesota State Bar Association has separation-of-powers concerns.

"What the legislation seems to be suggesting is that it would be appropriate for the Legislature to dictate to the separate branch of the Judiciary how it should conduct its business," bar association president Sonia Miller-Van Ooert testified, according to Minnesota Public Radio coverage of last week's committee hearing.

Rules written for the pilot project, allowing some criminal proceedings to be recorded, demand to be made permanent, not thwarted. With so much success and so few realized problems, expanding camera coverage can even be explored. The ability to better understand and better appreciate our courts and criminal-justice system, the same way all of Minnesota's neighbors do, can be encouraged and supported, rather than scrapped.

"What cameras add is a new level of public understanding and appreciation for what the courts do," Anfinson said. "A lot of what goes on in courtrooms is best conveyed and presented by video and audio so that people can actually see it.

"People don't realize just how good the court system is, how good most of the judges are, how efficient and careful and thoughtful the process is. They should be able to see that more, and so far they can't. And it's unfortunate," Anfinson further said. "The courts are one of the most powerful and important parts of American government. They do some of the most critical work (of) government. ... Judges are really powerful public officials. Why in the world shouldn't those types of functions be more visible to the public so they can better understand and appreciate it?"