GUEST EDITORIAL: Court recording decision is a good start

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Slowly, slowly, the Minnesota judicial system moves closer to the openness in Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota courtrooms. A pilot project on video and audio coverage of criminal proceedings proved successful, so the Minnesota Supreme Court this month appropriately made permanent most of the rules tested over the past 2-1/2 years.

The justices, in an unanimous order, determined that the effect of such recordings "ranged from neutral to positive." In other words, the disasters that opponents feared simply didn't occur. The justices also said such recordings resulted in "minimal disruption of the proceedings," which was another overblown misgiving.

Between the pilot's start in Nov. 10, 2015 and the court's order posted July 2, 2018, media across the state filed just 79 requests, with judges granting 53. That's out of thousands and thousands of cases heard each week.

The justices had hoped for a greater sample pool, but concluded they had enough to make a decision. We agree. That limited number of requests tells us reporters didn't flock to turn courtrooms into media circuses as some opponents had feared.

The permanent rules will take effect Sept. 1. One key thing won't change: The use of audio and visual recording devices is simply and solely at the discretion of the trial judge. The attorneys and parties don't have a veto.

Electronic recording is allowed only in "post-guilt" proceedings, i.e., after a guilty plea has been accepted or a guilty verdict has been reached. This usually means such recording comes only at sentencing.

The primary reason for this appears to be that opponents continue to fear that recording court proceedings will somehow change witnesses' behavior or distract jurors during a trial. Our neighboring states have found that not to be a case — the U.S. Supreme Court first held in 1981 that states may adopt rules permitting cameras and recording equipment in their courts — but liberal Minnesota in this circumstance leans conservative.

The Minnesota justices did relax a few rules from the pilot, including:

• The deadline for providing notice of intent to cover a hearing electronically is seven days instead of 10.

• Parties objecting to that electronic coverage request must provide notice and specific reasons at least three days in advance of the hearing, including to the people or organizations that requested coverage.

• Coverage is permitted even if a guilty plea is not formally accepted until the sentencing hearing. During the pilot, reporters found it impossible to comply with the advance notice rule when a plea agreement delayed formal acceptance until the actual sentencing. In fact, attorneys who had lost their veto power over media requests during the pilot project knew that such a plea tactic essentially took the decision back out of the judge's hands.

Numerous safeguards remain. The permanent rules still prohibit recorded coverage of drug courts, domestic violence involving family members, criminal sexual cases and testifying victims There also is no recording when the judge is absent.

In a world of growing distrust and unease with the legal system, seeing pictures and hearing from the courtroom in news stories can give people a better understanding of how the legal system works. Such coverage also can provide additional proof that the person on trial was given a fair hearing.

The Minnesota Supreme Court determined that these rules provide an appropriate balance between the fundamental right of a defendant to a fair trial and the judicial branch's commitment to the fair, open and impartial administration of justice.

We say making these rules permanent is a good start.