- Associated Press - Monday, March 26, 2018

Mankato Free Press, March 22

Government transparency: Oppose legislation that restricts court coverage

The photos and videotape of a Le Sueur County man reading a victim impact statement to a judge about how his wife tried to have him killed was compelling journalism when The Free Press published them last year.

It also gave the public insights into how justice is delivered.

But if a bill proposed by a bipartisan group of Minnesota legislators becomes law, that man’s videotaped statement would not likely ever have seen the light of day.

What’s wrong with this picture?

A bill (HF 3436) approved Wednesday by the House public safety committee calls for turning back the public access that has been gained by a Minnesota Supreme Court initiative and pilot program that was slowly and cautiously allowing media cameras in a very limited number of court proceedings.

The authors of the bill, Rep. Chuck Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, and Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, argue cameras in the court discourage witnesses of crimes from coming forward and otherwise intimidate victims or others. They say courtrooms should be focused only on providing justice and the public’s right to know and see the complete picture of what goes on should be a secondary or nonexistent concern.

Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, a member of the public safety committee, said he doesn’t object to cameras in the court if they are there for a good reason, but would oppose, for example, a reality TV show having cameras in court.

Several advocates for banning cameras testified that victims of domestic violence, for example, would be further traumatized by having cameras in courts. But these advocates and indeed some of the legislators themselves did not appear to understand that the current rules prohibit photographs of witnesses or jurors outright. Victims cannot be photographed unless they give their written permission. Cameras are not allowed in any case involving domestic violence.

The advocates and legislative proponents of banning cameras argue that, possibly, at some time in the future, the Supreme Court program might allow the photographing or filming of victims and witnesses. That’s highly unlikely given how the courts have already banned the practice and the judges have wide discretion to go even further in prohibiting photographing of anyone in their courtroom without giving many specific reasons.

The current rules further limit what court proceedings may be photographed. Those rules prohibit photographing any and all court proceedings except after a verdict has been rendered. And that limits cameras to sentencing hearings only, where victims give their statements to a judge as he or she contemplates what sentence the guilty should face.

The Free Press has participated in many court proceedings which it petitioned for camera access. It has been granted access in almost every case. These photographs added to the “truth narrative” of these stories. They showed a judge throwing up his hands when he knew the law restricted him from imposing a harsher sentence. These photos and videos revealed the level of remorse of those found guilty.

These were powerful images that allow the public to judge how justice was delivered in a public court of law funded by taxpayers. That taxpayers should be denied this information runs contrary to the rules of self-governance.

Knoblach argued if cameras are allowed in courts, victims of sex trafficking would forever have to see their testimony replayed on the internet. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The rules don’t allow victims to be photographed or filmed. It’s prohibited.

It’s troubling that Knoblach continues to give credence to these false premises when they are so far removed from reality.

We believe photographs, as they say, are worth a thousand words and create a more complete picture of a different kind of truth that comes once a verdict has been rendered.

Any attempt to deny citizens a method for evaluating how their government works is a strike against self-governance and should be fought with vigor.


St. Cloud Times, March 24

Use facts, not fear, to decide use of cameras in Minnesota courts

From closed-door caucuses to end-of-session secret meetings, Minnesotans know some of their legislators don’t like transparency during the most critical times of their jobs.

It should not be a surprise then that some legislators want to also continue limiting the lens (literally) through which residents can view court proceedings. What’s next? A wall around the governor’s mansion?

After decades of debate, study and even a Supreme Court-ordered pilot project, it’s troubling and sad that the Legislature is debating a ban on video coverage in courtrooms.

It’s troubling because facts show that cameras in courtrooms for years in about 40 other states have shown virtually no evidence that they impact the justice system.

It’s sad because some of the legislative testimony offered Wednesday was all about drama, not facts.

Witness St. Cloud Rep. Jim Knoblach’s opening statement in which he dramatically - and wrongly - said victims would be shown by media covering court proceedings.

That’s expressly forbidden in the Minnesota pilot project. And there is no indication that would change. You’d think Knoblach, who’s opposed cameras repeatedly, would know that.

In fact, here are the rules of the pilot project. Cameras cannot record:

- Domestic violence cases;

- When a jury is present;

- During juvenile cases;

- In special courts like drug courts or when charges include criminal sexual conduct.

- Victims without their permission.

In fact, cameras can only record proceedings after a guilty verdict or guilty plea, unless all parties agree otherwise.

As has been the case since the debate started, opponents to increasing courtroom transparency base their arguments on “what ifs” and, as Knoblach and other witnesses showed Wednesday, hyping fears not possible under the rules being proposed.

Plus, as this board noted almost 10 years ago, dozens of other states allow cameras in courts and there are few to no problems.

Put another way, if opponents are so convinced cameras will hurt the justice system, please find cases - evidence - in states with rules similar to those proposed here that make your case.

Otherwise, stop the fear-mongering and let the use of cameras in the courts be judged on the evidence compiled during the two-year pilot project and the experiences of dozens of other states.


Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 21

Don’t eliminate citizen input in selecting U regents

Proposals to alter the process that produces candidates for the University of Minnesota Board of Regents were not unexpected at the Legislature this year - not after last year’s regents’ election left a number of legislators dissatisfied.

Still, the stated rationale is startling for eliminating the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) and replacing it with a screening commission composed entirely of legislators - an idea that advanced in both House and Senate higher-education committees Tuesday. One credulitystraining claim is that the citizen-based council is “too political” and that a commission of legislators would behave in a less partisan fashion.

The RCAC also stands accused of paying too little attention to the board’s diversity, particularly regarding gender; of screening candidates in a manner that some consider overly subjective and others deem inadequate; and for insufficient effort to recruit candidates for what is arguably the most important public governing board in the state.

From that indictment, one might surmise that the RCAC is an external annoyance thrust upon an unwilling Legislature. In fact, it’s a body of the Legislature’s making, created in 1988. It operates according to the Legislature’s directives. All of its 24 members are appointed by the Legislature; its size and partisan composition are in the Legislature’s control.

What’s more, the RCAC’s role is purely advisory. Legislators retain the authority to supplant the council’s judgment with their own. That constitutionally guaranteed prerogative has been exercised only occasionally during the RCAC’s life span, but it was seen last year in the election of former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, also a former regent, to the board.

Some of the criticism of last year’s exercise is warranted - and is newly relevant, given the announcement that 15-year regent Patricia Simmons plans to leave the board at a yet-to-be-specified date this spring, potentially giving this Legislature another seat to fill. Only two of the 12 candidates the RCAC referred to the Legislature in January 2017 were women. The council’s screening of another candidate failed to turn up sexual-harassment charges that surfaced later.

But those complaints point to problems that the Legislature can address short of eliminating the RCAC and the citizen input it provides. The Legislature can alter the council’s size and composition. It can direct the council to advance a more diverse slate, or alter the number of candidates the RCAC recommends to the Legislature. It can beef up the council’s ability to perform background checks on candidates.

As one former RCAC chair, Mary McLeod, recently recommended on these pages, legislators also can - and should - take more personal responsibility for recruiting candidates. A governor’s unique capacity to tap talented people for public service should be used as well. The Legislature could give the governor a larger role by allowing the executive branch some RCAC representation.

The Legislature can take other steps to improve the regent selection. For example, six weeks now elapse between the RCAC’s recommendations and the Legislature’s election. Quality candidates may be deterred by the duration of the “campaign” they feel compelled to wage at the Capitol to win support. A tighter time frame should be considered.

What the Legislature ought not do is spurn the counsel of a select panel of citizens who care enough about the University of Minnesota to volunteer their time and effort in shaping its governing board - and who, not incidentally, relieve legislators of what can be a taxing assignment that’s well beyond the scope of usual legislative duties.

The RCAC’s members give deep, sustained attention to the high public trust that service on the Board of Regents entails. Shouldn’t those who bear the constitutional responsibility to elect regents want as much advice from such people as they can get?

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