CHICAGO—The days of the sketch artist may be numbered in Illinois, with the announcement of a decision to invite cameras into the Land of Lincoln courtrooms. The Illinois Supreme Court this week announced a pilot program to allow electronic news media inside the state’s circuit courts.
While the state’s Supreme and Appellate courts have allowed cameras since 1983, electronic media has been previously rejected in trial courts. Until this approval, Illinois was one of only 14 states that did not allow camera coverage.
“This is another step to bring more transparency and more accountability to the Illinois court system,” said Chief Justice Kilbride in a statement this week. “The provisions of this new policy keep discretion in the chief circuit judge and the trial judge to assure that a fair and impartial trial is not compromised, yet affords a closer look at the workings of our court system to the public through the eyes of the electronic news media and news photographers.”
According to Illinois Supreme Court Press Secretary Joseph Tybor, the cameras in trial courts initiative came from Chief Justice Kilbride himself. Since he came to his post in October 2010, Chief Justice Kilbride has worked to bring state courts into the digital age, making them more efficient and accessible.
Tybor says the changes have largely been welcomed, and so far the same holds true for the electronic media coverage initiative. All seven Illinois Supreme Court justices voted in favor of the camera experiment.
“The media, of course, has been overwhelmingly in favor of the experiment,” said Tybor. “But there have been preliminary indications on several of the 23 circuits that said they will apply for approval. For example, the chief judge of Cook County—one of the largest trial courts in the nation—has been very enthusiastic about the idea. There are indications that several circuits intend to apply.”
Effective immediately, the policy invites all of the state’s circuit courts to apply for approval to take part in the program. Once a circuit is approved by the Supreme Court, the media may request to film the eligible cases in that circuit.
But the new courtroom lens comes with some appropriate discretion. The jury will not have to face the cameras, and unless there is victim consent, prosecutions involving sexual abuse will not be granted extended media coverage of the testimony. The policy gives police informants, undercover agents, and relocated witnesses similar protections.
The policy also prohibits media coverage in any juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression, and trade secret cases, and gives absolute discretion to the trial judge on whether to allow extended media coverage of a proceeding. The policy states that any decision by a chief judge or judge to deny, limit, or terminate extended media coverage cannot be appealed.
Whether the use of courtroom cameras is viewed as a vulgar distraction or a valuable lens for public scrutiny, the policy for Illinois’s pilot program is certainly not without precedent. While it’s unique to the state, Tybor says the policy is modeled after some of the provisions contained in the Iowa Rules for Expanded Media Coverage.
According to Chief Justice Kilbride, although electronic media is new to Illinois courts, “It has been standard practice in many other states.“I am confident that through the diligence of our chief circuit judges and our trial judges, along with the professionalism of the news media, that it may become a standard practice in our state, too,” Kilbride said.