A refreshingly honest take on courtroom cameras

Judge Dale Harris has an op-ed discussing his first experience with cameras in his courtroom, stemming from Minnesota’s pilot project to allow recording of certain sentencing proceedings.  It’s a usefully honest take:

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.

Cameras probably do have some effect on participants, just as a live audience would.  But if the end result is a sentencing characterized by more measured words and a careful tone, the cameras pilot should indeed be considered a success.

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