With Help from Ballard Spahr, Decades-Long Fight for Access to Courtrooms Clears Hurdle
In March 2023, the Minnesota Supreme Court significantly expanded courtroom transparency, doing away with the longstanding rule that both parties to a criminal trial must consent to allowing cameras in the courtroom and instead leaving it to the discretion of the judge.
“In the end, we find that the modification to [the rules governing audiovisual recording in courtrooms] will promote transparency and confidence in the basic fairness that is an essential component of our system of justice in Minnesota and protect the constitutional rights and safety of all participants in criminal proceedings in the State,” the court wrote.
While judges can still prohibit cameras in court on a case-by-case basis, the rule change eliminates an all-but-insurmountable obstacle—all-party consent—that kept Minnesota from joining the vast majority of states that routinely allow camera coverage of criminal proceedings. Advocates for government accountability have been working toward this change for decades, and several Ballard Spahr First Amendment litigators were instrumental in bringing the effort across the finish line.
“The push for greater access to criminal trials came to a head in recent months due to virtual hearings during the pandemic and the livestreaming of the trials of Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter, former police officers convicted for on-duty killings,” said First Amendment litigation Partner Leita Walker, who fought for the right of media outlets and the public to observe both trials. “The public’s ability to watch those trials unfold in real time—which fostered understanding of the process and confidence in the verdicts—changed the minds of important people and galvanized efforts to change the rule.”
Ms. Walker, who was assisted in her work on the Chauvin and Potter trials by Media and Entertainment Law Associates Emmy Parsons and Isabella Salamão Nascimento, testified in favor of the change both before the advisory committee and the State Supreme Court. She also submitted written comments to the Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of media and open-government clients.
“Ultimately, there is still work to be done on educating people on the value of cameras in courtrooms, but it’s difficult to overstate what significant progress this is,” Ms. Walker said. “This is a huge step forward for Minnesota, and a major win for transparency and accountability.”