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Minnesota Supreme Court justice inclined to favor cameras in courtrooms

David Lillehaug

DULUTH, Minn.—Like many Americans, Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice David Lillehaug has tracked recent news of the sentencing of a former USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually assaulted numerous athletes.

For seven days, more than 150 of Larry Nassar's victims, including some of the nation's top Olympic stars, spoke out in a Michigan courtroom. Courtroom video of their emotional statements has been widely circulated on social media and broadcast on television.

"That sentencing hearing was open to cameras and recording devices, and the victim statements were very powerful," Lillehaug said Thursday. "I think the public benefits from being able to see justice in action. You have to be careful to protect victims if they don't want their statements to be televised, and we do that in Minnesota. But the idea that the courts can benefit from transparency is a very powerful idea."

Minnesota's high court will soon face a major decision on cameras in its district courtrooms. For the past two years, a pilot project has allowed news organizations to capture video and photographs inside some sentencing proceedings — and Lillehaug and his fellow justices will soon decide whether to make that policy permanent.

The former top federal prosecutor in Minnesota and a state Supreme Court justice since 2013, Lillehaug was in town Thursday to highlight a recent State Capitol renovation and discuss the court's work at meetings of the Duluth and Iron Range bar associations and the Rotary Club of Duluth.

Between speaking engagements, Lillehaug sat down to discuss cameras and other issues facing the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

Q: What are your impressions of the pilot project allowing cameras into criminal courtrooms?

A: I'm very favorably inclined toward that. We'll have a hearing and a vote, but I think by and large it's been a good experiment and aids trust in government. The courts depend really on the trust of the constituents, and the taxpayers. The more transparent and accessible the courts are, the greater the trust in the judicial system will be.

Q: What do you see as the biggest issues facing the judiciary right now?

A: We've got a continuing challenge in the drug and mental illness areas, and of very great importance to Northeastern Minnesota is the opioid crisis. We've got nationally recognized drug courts in St. Louis County, but opioids pose a tremendous challenge to the judicial system. We've really got to ratchet up our drug court effort around the state. ...

Another couple areas pose some real challenges to the district courts, which do the heavy lifting in this state. In this judicial district, child protection cases have gone up 64 percent since 2010. And I think also we're seeing as the Baby Boomer generation ages, elder abuse is a more significant issue.

Q: The state has undertaken a major initiative to move from paper to electronic records. How is that progressing?

A: It's well, well along. Chief Justice (Lorie) Gildea deserves a great deal of credit for this initiative. It's basically bringing Minnesota's courts into the 21st century. We now are having 280,000 documents a month e-filed. So the vast majority of our work is now online.

Q: How does this impact average Minnesotans, particularly those outside the metro area?

A: If you're in Koochiching County and you can order on Amazon you should be able to get access to court records. It will give everyone in the state of Minnesota equal access through a computer to court documents.

Second, it is a way to spread the work around the state, so that we can keep all of our county courthouses open and productive, and I think that's very important. Just because you don't have a lot of cases in your courthouse doesn't mean the courthouse isn't the center of the community.

The other reason our web work is so important is the fact that now a high percentage of our civil cases have self-represented litigants. People cannot afford to hire an attorney, or they want to do it themselves, or sometimes a combination of both. We need to make sure that the courts are accessible to the average person who is in a family law case or small claims case.

Q: The Supreme Court was displaced from its regular courtroom during the Capitol renovation. How does it feel to be back?

A: When I walk in there I have two emotions. First, I feel honored to be sitting in a place where justices have been sitting since 1905. Second, over the back door is the phrase "where law ends, tyranny begins." I see that every time I sit down on the bench and it reminds me how important the rule of law is, and the idea that no one is above the law in our state and our nation. That's a very important message these days.