A few weeks ago, there was something in my courtroom during a sentencing hearing I had never experienced in my 24-year legal career.
Honestly, I own a mirror, so I am quite sure my face is better suited for radio. Seeing that face on the evening news, with enough of a close-up to tell how well I had shaved that morning, was more than a little disconcerting. This was quite a change from the traditional sketch artist's depiction of a courtroom.
Other jurisdictions have allowed cameras in court for a long time. Many of us were glued to our televisions during the O.J. Simpson trial years ago, and an entire cable network sprung up to feed the public's desire for courtroom drama.
Minnesota, however, long resisted the trend. Only last year, a pilot project was implemented to allow video and audio recording of certain sentencing proceedings.
When the request came in for a camera in my courtroom, I was not exactly thrilled. The case was going to present me with a tough decision, and I did not relish the thought of making it with the added distraction of the camera. The defense objected due to the personal nature of some of the information that would be presented. But I felt the request met the criteria for the pilot project, so I approved it.
Court administration did most of the work coordinating the logistics with the media. The single camera was set up in an unobtrusive location before I entered the courtroom, and the two stations covering the hearing agreed to share footage. We had the hearing in a larger courtroom to better accommodate the camera crew. Overall, that part of the process went fairly smoothly.
There is not much of a question in my mind that the cameras had some effect on the participants. I could tell I was measuring my words more carefully than usual, and I am pretty sure the attorneys were as well. Although most court proceedings are open to the public, human beings just tend to act differently when they know they are on camera. It is also hard to pull out a couple short clips that accurately depict a complex hearing. Those are the primary reasons I was not a fan of the pilot program.
For those of us who work in the courthouse every day, however, it is probably too easy to take familiarity of the judicial process for granted. Many people never see the inside of a courtroom, so having this type of access through the media might provide some insight that those people would not otherwise get. The media is merely responding to that perceived need.
As a government entity, the court system always has to strive for greater transparency. The question in the near future, as the pilot project is evaluated, is whether these benefits amount to a net gain. If the answer is "yes," then I fully would expect the pilot program to be expanded to more types of court hearings. Stay tuned.
Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.