Burke, Stawicki: Chauvin case proved the value and efficacy of cameras in the courtroom. Let them in.

Opinion Viewpoint

On June 25, millions of people around the world will tune in to watch or listen to Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill sentence Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd.  For many viewers and listeners, the sentencing will carry more weight because they were able to tune in to 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 cameras would negatively affect the court proceedings never materialized.
  • The public saw a transparent legal process at work rather than just hearing about a verdict with little or no context.
  • The case was true to a bedrock principle of this nation — that a citizen has the right to a public trial.

Opponents have long argued that cameras would taint the legal process and deny defendants fair trials: jurors would be reluctant to serve; judges and attorneys would grandstand; and witnesses would be afraid to testify. That didn’t happen in the Chauvin trial — jury selection wrapped up early; the judge controlled the courtroom; and witnesses testified.

Too often, the cameras-in-the-courtroom argument is framed as all or nothing: They are in and can show anything and anyone in the courtroom, or they are out.

In the Chauvin trial, Judge Cahill provided a tailored approach to balancing privacy rights with the right to a public trial. His detailed order regarding cameras included numerous 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’ parent or guardian consented beforehand.

Allowing cameras and audio to air and record the Chauvin trial, however, did more than quash old arguments; it showed the public how trials really work.

The public saw the attorneys — the prosecution and the defense — and the judge question potential jurors about their backgrounds and perspectives. It saw attorneys argue about — and the judge rule on — what evidence could go before the jury and why. The public saw opening statements, closing arguments, and everything in between. By the end of the trial, the public had gained a better understanding of how complex, thorough and detailed the criminal trial process is.

The founders of this country believed that an open and transparent judiciary was essential for this fledgling democracy to grow. They did not design a system that allowed judges to close a courthouse nor prohibit reporters from taking notes with their quill pens.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution committed to open courts. The people had a right to know what went on in the courthouse. Years later, Minnesota embodied that same commitment in Article 1 Section 6 of its Constitution, which explicitly provides a right to a speedy and public trial in criminal cases.

Cameras and audio are allowed in the state’s appellate courtrooms, the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court.  But the public’s access into the trial courts has been unreasonably limited.

Many people have little contact with the court system, so it is understandable that they feel overwhelmed and lost when they are confronted with an unfamiliar legal system. This lack of knowledge about the court has resulted in a state of ambivalence and perhaps in part explains the lack of trust too many courts face.

The courts are open if you can physically show up in person at the courthouse. But what about citizens who cannot; for example, the elderly, people who have disabilities, or those who cannot afford the transportation? Or the multitudes of us who can’t leave our jobs or other responsibilities for extended periods to go see court in person? And for those who would come to the courthouse, courtrooms are small. They never have enough seating in high-profile cases.

News organizations across the board — print, web, radio and television — because of economic disruption have had to cut their staffs sharply from even a decade ago. That means there are fewer reporters to cover the courts, and when they do, most are generalists. There are fewer longtime reporters who solely cover the courts as a beat, and through experience, are able to explain to the public the legal process, translate its language and provide historical context.

Moreover, we live in an era where many people do not trust the press. Cameras and audio, offering additional detail and context from the courtroom, allow even the most cynical critics of the news media to see more of what happens for themselves and to see how the press reported them.

There is a lack of trust in public institutions generally. While the lack of trust is not specifically focused on courts, lack of trust is especially problematic for courts.

Cameras and audio in the courtroom would help reporters do their jobs better. In most Minnesota trial courtrooms, journalists are limited to taking notes with a pen and pad, although some judges will allow laptops for note-taking. Summarizing all that happened in a trial at the end of the day on deadline is a daunting task. Allowing journalists to record testimony gives them a detailed record to refer to in addition to their hand-written notes.

Many judges take copious notes (frequently on their laptop), they have a court stenographer who may even be doing real-time reporting, and, just to make sure, there is a tape-recorded backup. If courts desire accurate news reporting, there is no justification for stripping journalists of tools, i.e. a camera or tape recorder, to tell an accurate story.

The Chauvin trial showed that allowing cameras and audio into Minnesota courtrooms can work and is positive on many levels.

As a result, the question should no longer be if cameras are allowed but when are they not allowed, and why.

The issue is to what extent the courts (and the legal community) are committed to transparency and enabling accurate reporting of what happens in Minnesota courts, which are part of an American system meant from the beginning to be open and comprehensible, not closed and mysterious.

Kevin S. Burke was a district judge in Hennepin County for 36 years and was elected for four terms as Chief Judge. He chaired the State Board of Public Defense and was a leader in the effort to improve and expand the state’s public defender system. In 2003, he was selected as the William H. Rehnquist Award recipient by the National Center for State Courts, presented annually to a state judge who exemplifies the highest level of judicial excellence, integrity, fairness and professional ethics. He is on the Board of Directors of the National Association for Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers.

Elizabeth A. Stawicki has served as counsel at the Office of the Legislative Auditor since 2014. Before that, she was a legal correspondent for nearly two decades at Minnesota Public Radio and earned six national journalism awards, including the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel. In 2019, she served as a panelist in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for the international organization, Regional Dialogue, about enhancing judicial-media relations to raise public trust and transparency of the Uzbekistan judiciary; and in May 2021, about the role of a free press in rooting out government corruption.