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Matt Von Pinnon, Published October 17 2010

Von Pinnon: Minn. judges and lawyers determining what you see

‘Blind justice” has more than one meaning in Minnesota’s trial courts.

After all, Minnesota is one of 15 states that severely restrict cameras in public courtrooms.

Last week, a state Supreme Court advisory committee tasked with studying if cameras should be allowed in the state’s trial courtrooms voted 7-6 to further study the matter with an academically based pilot project.

The decision was hailed as a breakthrough of sorts, which is comical given that the pilot project could cost $750,000, take two years to complete and will come five years after news organizations first banded together and lobbied the state’s high court to get with the times.

Minnesota’s approach to cameras in the courtroom is among the most restrictive in the country. Cameras are only allowed in trial courts if the judge, prosecution and defense all agree to it, which rarely happens.

And this gets to the heart of why Minnesota’s court system is so antiquated on this issue: The very people who feel threatened by this transparency – the judges, lawyers and others in the legal machine – are those who’ve always been privileged to decide the matter.

Even the committee advising the Supreme Court on this matter is primarily made up of judges and others in the legal community.

Since when do they solely represent what’s best for the public? The judges, especially, should recognize a conflict of interest when they see it and recuse themselves from this issue at once.

Opponents of allowing cameras in courtrooms say the technology could discourage victims and witnesses from coming forward.

The pilot project calls for the University of Minnesota to study 500 randomly selected cases in which cameras are present and 500 cases in which cameras are not. The academics will survey all participants after the photographed trials to try to determine if the cameras had a chilling effect on them.

Minnesota could save a lot of time and money by simply talking to trial participants in neighboring North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin, all of which are much less restrictive in this area.

In North Dakota, transparency is presumed, though there is a process for the public to petition for “expanded media coverage” to allow cameras.

In those cases, the judge asks all parties – prosecution, defense and public (the press) – to weigh in on the request. The judge can deny cameras but must cite one of the exceptions to image-taking dictated by law (for instance, cases involving juveniles).

North Dakota’s approach has worked well. Justice is done, and North Dakotans better understand and appreciate the legal process because of it.

Total transparency of court proceedings helps lift the veil of secrecy on an important sector of government that far too many people only see as depicted on prime-time TV dramas.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.