On June 25, millions of people around the world will tune in to watch or listen to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill convict Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of the murder of George Floyd. For many viewers and listeners, the conviction will carry more weight because they were able to tune into the trial itself.
The Chauvin case marked the first time in Minnesota history that cameras and audio recordings were allowed in a criminal trial, but it should not be the last for several reasons:
- Fears that the cameras would negatively affect court proceedings never materialized.
- The public saw a transparent legal process at work rather than simply hearing a verdict with little to no context.
- The case was true to a fundamental principle of this nation – that a citizen has the right to a public trial.
Opponents have long argued that cameras would taint the court process and deprive defendants of fair trials: jurors would be reluctant to serve; judges and lawyers would make the podium; and witnesses would be afraid to testify. This did not happen in the Chauvin trial – jury selection ended early; the judge controlled the courtroom; and witnesses testified.
Too often, the cameras in the courtroom argument is presented as all or nothing: they are inside and can show anything and anyone in the courtroom, or they are out. .
In the Chauvin trial, Justice Cahill proposed a bespoke approach to balancing privacy rights with the right to a public trial. His detailed order for the cameras included many requirements. For example, cameras could not show jurors or potential jurors, but audio was allowed during jury selection. Cameras could not show witnesses under the age of 18 unless the witness and the witness’s parent or guardian consented in advance.
Allowing cameras and audio to broadcast and record the Chauvin trial, however, did more than nullify old arguments; he showed the public how trials really work.
The public saw the lawyers – the prosecution and the defense – and the judge asked potential jurors about their backgrounds and prospects. He saw lawyers arguing – and the judge rule on – what evidence could be presented to the jury and why. The audience has seen the opening statements, the pleadings and everything. By the end of the trial, the public had gained a better understanding of the complexity, thoroughness and detail of the criminal trial process.
The founders of this country believed that an open and transparent justice system was essential for this nascent democracy to flourish. They did not devise a system for judges to close a courthouse or to prohibit journalists from taking notes with their quill pens.
The drafters of the United States Constitution have pledged to open the courts. People had a right to know what was going on in the courthouse. Years later, Minnesota incorporated that same commitment into Article 1, Section 6 of its Constitution, which explicitly provides for the right to a speedy and public trial in criminal cases.
Cameras and audio are permitted in state appeal rooms, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the Minnesota Supreme Court. But public access to the courts of first instance has been unreasonably limited.
Many people have little contact with the justice system, so it’s understandable that they feel overwhelmed and lost when faced with an unfamiliar legal system. This lack of knowledge of the court has created a state of ambivalence and perhaps partly explains the lack of trust that too many courts are confronted with.
Courts are open if you can physically attend the courthouse in person. But what about the citizens who cannot? for example, the elderly, the disabled or those who cannot afford to travel? Or the multitudes of us who cannot leave our jobs or other responsibilities for long periods of time to go to court in person? And for those who come to the courthouse, the courtrooms are small. They never have enough seating in large cases.
News organizations in all fields – print, web, radio and television – have had to downsize sharply as a result of economic disruption compared to just ten years ago. This means that there are fewer journalists to cover the courts, and when they do, most are generalists. There are fewer longtime reporters who cover courts only as a guide and, from experience, are able to explain the court process to the public, translate its language and provide historical context.
In addition, we live in a time when a lot of people do not trust the press. Cameras and audio, providing additional detail and context from the courtroom, allow even the most cynical media critics to see more of what is going on for themselves and how the press reported it. .
There is a lack of trust in public institutions in general. While the lack of trust is not focused specifically on the courts, the lack of trust is particularly problematic for the courts.
Cameras and audio in the courtroom would help journalists do their jobs better. In most Minnesota courtrooms, reporters are limited to taking notes with a pen and notepad, although some judges allow laptops for note-taking. Summarizing everything that happened in a trial at the end of the day on time is a daunting task. Allowing journalists to record testimony gives them a detailed record to refer to in addition to their handwritten notes.
Many judges take lots of notes (often on their laptops), they have a court reporter who can even do real-time reporting, and just to make sure there is a backup recorded on tape. If the courts want accurate reporting, there is no reason to deprive journalists of tools, i.e. a camera or tape recorder, to tell an accurate story.
The Chauvin lawsuit has shown that allowing cameras and audio in courtrooms in Minnesota can work and is positive on many levels.
As a result, the question should no longer be whether cameras are allowed but when and why.
The question is, to what extent are the courts (and the legal community) committed to being transparent and allowing an accurate account of what happens in the courts of Minnesota, which are part of an American system? meant from the start to be open and understandable, not closed and mysterious.
Kevin S. Burke served as a district judge in Hennepin County for 36 years and was elected chief justice for four terms. He chaired the State Council for Public Defense and was a leader in efforts to improve and expand the state’s public defender system. In 2003, he was selected as the recipient of the William H. Rehnquist Award by the National Center for State Courts, awarded annually to a state judge who exemplifies the highest level of judicial excellence, integrity, d fairness and professional ethics. Elizabeth A. Stawicki has been an advisor to the Office of the Legislative Auditor since 2014. Prior to that, she was a legal correspondent for nearly two decades at Minnesota Public Radio and won six national journalism awards, including the American Bar’s Silver Gavel Association. In 2019, she was a panelist in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for the international organization, Regional Dialogue, on improving relations between justice and the media to increase public confidence and transparency of the Uzbek judicial system; and in May 2021, on the role of a free press in eradicating government corruption.