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Minnesota Supreme Court expands pilot project on news cameras, audiotaping in state courtrooms


ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The Minnesota Supreme Court decided Wednesday to allow expanded access of media camera and audio recordings of criminal proceedings as part of a pilot project.

The decision marks a departure from a rule that all parties to a case had to consent before recordings were permitted, which led to few instances where cameras were let in. It's also the latest move in news organizations' 30-year effort to get cameras and other electronic devices into courtrooms by loosening a 1974 prohibition.

While recordings will be permitted after a guilty verdict is returned or a guilty plea accepted, the new rule doesn't grant complete access. There won't be coverage allowed when a jury is present; in specialized courts for drug, mental health, veteran and DWI cases; or for juvenile proceedings and those involving domestic violence or sex crimes. Also, victims who testify as part of sentencing or other proceedings following a verdict would have to give consent in writing to be recorded.

In their order, justices said they were working to balance concerns about intrusive or prejudicial coverage of proceedings with a need to foster confidence in fairness of the judicial system.

"We conclude there is good reason to lift the blanket exclusion of electronic coverage of public criminal proceedings so that we can study the impact of electronic coverage of those proceedings," they wrote.

Court administrators and judges will retain discretion to approve or exclude electronic coverage. Further guidelines will be developed to carry out the new rule.

Justice Alan Page, who retires this month, wrote in a dissent that allowing recordings does more harm than public good. He had previously opposed the pilot project that depended on consent of the parties.

"The data that has been produced suggests that any benefit from permitting cameras in our courtrooms will inure to media outlets while working to the disadvantage of due process and justice," Page wrote.

Minnesota has rules allowing electronic coverage of civil proceedings, which do not require consent of the parties involved but also under limitations.

The new rule takes effect in November, and a report on the latest experiment is due by January 2018.

Jim du Bois, president and chief executive officer of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, said advocates of greater courtroom transparency should see the change as progress, even if in piecemeal fashion.

"We'll take a series of small victories that will hopefully lead to a greater victory," he said.

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