Minnesota Supreme Court to set rules for interactive television in district courts.by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
The state Supreme Court will soon finalize rules for interactive TV in district court hearings. Interactive television -- ITV -- allows judges to hold hearings by closed-circuit television. Proponents say ITV saves money and time. But critics say it lessens the dignity of court proceedings.
St. Paul, Minn. — About an hour and half's drive southwest of the Twin Cities sits a majestic 90-year-old courthouse on a hill overlooking Gaylord, Minnesota. Inside one of the courtrooms framed in elaborately-carved wood, Judge Tom McCarthy presides. McCarthy just spent close to 10 minutes questioning a man about whether he understands his rights.
"To the charge of driving under the influence of alcohol, how do you plead?" asks McCarthy.
"Guilty, your honor," the man responds.
"Would you please raise your right hand? Do you swear that the testimony you are about to give is true, to the best of your knowledge or belief?"
"Yes, your honor."
McCarthy watched the defendant on a film screen; not in person. The defendant raised his hand 36 miles away in Le Center, Minnesota. Le Center has only one judge, and he needed time off. Without ITV, the county would've needed to transport the man to Gaylord or McCarthy would've had to drive to Le Center.
On this day, McCarthy presided at an all-day hearing in his own courthouse. But during a break, he walked across the hall to a courtroom set up with ITV and conducted several bail hearings and took the man's guilty plea.
McCarthy strongly advocates ITV, but he doesn't believe courts should use it in criminal cases routinely.
"Frankly I was a little uncomfortable taking the gentleman's plea over ITV today; I don't normally do that. It's normally for the very brief arraignment calendars. But I was convinced that he understood completely what his rights were and made a knowing and voluntary waiver of those rights, I thought he knew what he was doing and I thought it would be unfair to him to have to come back to court on another day to do exactly what he did this morning," says McCarthy.
Sibley County was the first to use ITV in the early 1990s. Initially, the county used it for mental commitment hearings so patients wouldn't have to travel to court. In 1998, the Minnesota Supreme Court authorized the 9th District in northwestern Minnesota to use ITV as a pilot project for some felony and gross misdemeanor hearings. Those hearings included: first appearances; bail hearings; and in misdemeanor cases, pleas and sentencing. That district stretches across 17 counties.
The 9th District's chief public defender says ITV has cut travel time between counties but it just can't duplicate the nuances of an in-person appearance. Kris Kolar says judges need assess a person's credibility in person.
"It's easier for a judge to gauge those intangibles when the people are right there in front of him," Kolar says. "He can see them, he can look in their eyes, see their body language. And it's also a lot easier to deny somebody significant rights when as soon as you've done it, you can shut off the TV and you don't have to face the consequences of your decision to the individuals who are affected by it," Kolar says.
Hiring more judges would be an alternative to ITV. But Stevens County prosecutor Charles Glasrud says that would be cost-prohibitive and a waste of judicial resources.
"I don't think it's possible that anybody would be willing to come up with the amount of money to have enough judges out in rural Minnesota that you could do away with the need for ITV. It would be extremely wasteful because what you'd have is a judge waiting around for something to happen that may or may not happen," Glasrud says.
Ensuring that each county has its own judge would mean adding 11 new judges at a cost of about $1.4 million. Nevertheless, public defender Kris Kolar worries that courts will begin using ITV out of ease not necessity.
"Going to court should be seen as a very, very important event in someone's life that affects important rights that people have. And I think every attempt should be made to have everybody present in the county where court is being heard rather than allowing people to appear on TV because it's more convenient," says Kolar.
ITV rules vary from state to state. The federal courts allow it only for a defendant's first appearance before a judge or arraignment.
Sibley County Judge Tom McCarthy says he understands the concerns surrounding ITV. He says the courts need to strike a balance on when and how to use it.
"You certainly should not do, for instance, a criminal trial or any trial that's going to be contested or last more than 20 minutes by ITV; it's just too cumbersome. But for the routine pretrial hearings, emergency criminal arraignments and jail hearings, I think it's a very appropriate use of judicial resources," says McCarthy.
The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to finalize the rules for ITV within the next few weeks.
- Morning Edition, 10/19/2007, 8:24 a.m.