Minnesota broadcasts criminal sentencings … and the world doesn’t end

One of the main concerns expressed by lawyers and judges about courtroom cameras is that they will lead to grandstanding and obnoxious courtroom behavior. But the experience in Minnesota state courts suggests that these concerns are overblown. Using a bit of a loophole in the law — sentencing proceedings do not require assent from the parties — more media are gaining camera access to high-profile sentencings. The results have been mostly positive.

There are ample reasons to want to protect the privacy of victims, jurors, and witnesses during trial. But there are also ample reasons to make the open forum of the courtroom truly open to everyone. Video access of court proceedings is assuredly compatible with safety, due process, and substantial justice.

Minnesota Supreme Court to hold public hearing on courtroom cameras

Today’s hearing on permitting cameras in criminal cases comes as the state’s courts and legislature split on courtroom transparency: the state supreme court has run a pilot program since 2015 and recently began live streaming its own oral arguments. But some legislators seem determined to restrict any broadcast of criminal proceedings.

 

Minnesota legislature moves to restrict courtroom broadcasts

Minnesota’s courts recently completed a successful pilot program to allow broadcasts of  sentencing and related post-conviction hearings in criminal matters. The Minnesota Supreme Court has also shown strong support for opening its courtrooms to broadcasts in the public interest.

Some members of the state legislature, however, remain unconvinced. Yesterday, the House Public Safety Committee advanced a bill that would severely restrict the broadcast of sentencing hearings, unless everyone involved agrees in advance. The bill also would prohibit the use of state funds for audio or video coverage of criminal proceedings.

Sponsors of the bill argue that witnesses and victims may be reluctant to testify if cameras are running. That sentiment is understandable, but the bill itself is sorely misguided. Proceedings in an open courtroom reflect a careful balance between the rights and sensitivities of victims and witnesses, those of the accused or convicted, and those of the general public. Modern broadcasting tools do not upset this balance; they merely extend its reach outside the courthouse. Indeed, the current practice already prohibits broadcasts of victim statements, witness testimony, or the jury, while still permitting the public to witness the administration of justice.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, a proponent of courtroom broadcasts, nicely summarized the real benefits of the existing system: “What it does is it provides a reassurance, a catharsis, a demonstration of how the justice system works. And that has enormous value to the people whose court system it is, after all.”

Hear, hear. Hopefully the legislature will ultimately reject the bill and allow the state court system to continue serving the public interest by broadcasting certain hearings through both audio and video channels.

Minnesota seeks public comment on broadcasting of criminal proceedings

In 2015, the Minnesota Supreme Court authorized a pilot program to allow limited audio and video coverage of criminal proceedings in the state trial courts. The pilot ended in December, and the state’s advisory committee on criminal rules has recommended that the pilot procedures be adopted permanently.  The Supreme Court is now seeking public comment on this proposal.

Comments are due by March 25, and a hearing will be held in April.

Minnesota Supreme Court to begin live streaming oral arguments

On the heels of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s first live broadcast of an oral argument last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court has announced that it will begin live streaming its own oral arguments next week.  The first live streamed case will involve a dispute between Governor Mark Dayton and the state legislature.

In a statement, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said the court is “committed to maintaining the public’s trust in our Court, and ensuring the openness and accessibility of our public proceedings.”

“By livestreaming our oral arguments, we hope to give more Minnesotans the opportunity to see their highest Court in action, and to learn more about how our Court considers and decides the important legal matters that come before us,” she said.

Minnesota adds two judgeships to keep up with case filings

Just yesterday I noted the impact of increased case filings on state courts in Washington.  The State of Minnesota has also recently experienced significant increases in filings, especially in major criminal cases and child protection cases.  In response, the Minnesota legislature has authorized two new judgeships to help alleviate the burden.

The courts helped themselves in this instance by keeping careful statistics on caseload growth, which added meaningful support to their request for new judges.

Several new federal judicial nominees have state court experience, and that’s great news

On Monday, the President nominated ten individuals for federal judgeships — five on the circuit courts of appeal, four on the district courts, and one on the U.S. Court of Claims.  Three of the ten (Joan Larsen of Michigan, David Stras of Minnesota, and David Nye of Idaho) currently sit on state courts — Larsen and Stras on their state supreme courts, and Nye on his state’s trial bench.

The value of state court experience for federal judges has not been discussed much, but it should be. An intimate knowledge of state law and state court operations is surprisingly useful for the federal bench. And appointing federal judges from the state courts has valuable ripple effects for the states as well. More after the jump.

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