The livestreaming of the Derek Chauvin murder trial was unprecedented in the history of Minnesota court access, but it so far has not resulted in any serious consideration to making all courts open to livestreaming or even photography.
Hennepin County District Judge Peter A. Cahill took a remarkable step in mostly defying Minnesota court rules that ban cameras from capturing trial action. He did so on the basis that livestreaming was the only way to provide the constitutional right to a public trial. Cahill argued that the pandemic effectively barred citizens from attending the trial in person, which is allowed under Minnesota law. Cahill said he was allowed to change any rule that creates a “manifest injustice,” and in this case he believed such an injustice would occur were the trial not to be televised.
The Chauvin case, Cahill argued, had widespread public interest across the world. Chauvin’s defense attorneys agreed with the decision on livestreaming, but the state attorney general’s office objected to it, saying televising the trial might scare away witnesses. Their motion was also denied by Cahill.
Cahill also will allow livestreaming of the upcoming Chauvin sentencing hearing and the trial of the three other officers involved in the Floyd case.
But Minnesota otherwise remains a backward state when it comes to public access to its court proceedings. Dozens of other states allow gavel to gavel coverage of their trials by broadcast, print and online media. Minnesota is not only backward, it’s so far behind other states in public access, it’s embarrassing.
And in a state where access to government records and meetings has typically been robust, there has somehow been special treatment for lawyers and judges who can shield their mistakes from widespread public scrutiny.
Almost a decade ago, Minnesota media groups pushed for allowing cameras in courtrooms. The Minnesota Supreme Court convened a special commission of lawyers, journalists, victim advocates and educators to study the issue. A pilot program was approved to allow cameras and videotaping only at the end of trials during sentencing hearings. Even then, there are restrictions on who and what can be filmed.
While the pilot program showed no real negative consequences for courts, the rule allowing cameras was made permanent. That’s a small and mostly insignificant step for what should be allowed.
Public trials should be public. They should be easily accessible to the public via broadcasting, livestreaming or other means as they are in many other states, including Minnesota’s neighbors.
The Chauvin trial demonstrated that rights to a fair trial can be protected at the same time the press and the public are granted unfettered access to view all the court proceedings.
We urge the Minnesota legal community and legislators to change state rules on cameras in the courts. Livestreaming, broadcasting and still photography should be permitted in all trials in Minnesota.