SPRINGFIELD — It is time for Illinois courts to become more transparent by allowing cameras into courtrooms, Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride told Illinois Statehouse News in an exclusive interview.

By Scott Reeder

SPRINGFIELD — It is time for Illinois courts to become more transparent by allowing cameras into courtrooms, Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride told Illinois Statehouse News in an exclusive interview.

On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court is expected to announce it will allow trial court proceedings to be filmed and tape recorded for the first time in the state’s 194-year history, Kilbride said.

Illinois is one of 14 states where cameras in trial courtrooms are either not allowed or not used, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association, a professional organization serving the electronic news profession and dedicated to setting standards for news gathering and reporting.

“The idea behind this is simple. We need to have the courts be more open. By having the public keeping an eye on what is going on in the courtroom, it can act as a check in the balance of power,” Kilbride said.

But the value of cameras in courtrooms goes beyond accountability to help instill public trust in the court system, said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit center for journalism studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“If we don’t have cameras in courtrooms, it’s left up to shows like Law & Order to give the public an impression of what is going on in the judiciary,” he said. “Of course, what is going on in the courts is much better than that, and the public should be able to see what is really going on.”

The Illinois high court unanimously approved the measure this month, and it will be part of the court’s policy Tuesday.

The move is a positive step toward holding judges, state’s attorneys and other elected officials who work in courtrooms accountable, said Mike Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, a national organization that promotes government transparency and accountability.

Kilbride said that when he was seeking to be retained on the Supreme Court in 2010, several news reporters asked whether cameras should be allowed in courtrooms.

“I told them I favored it, but that I was just one vote on the court,” he said. “It’s happening, quite frankly, because I pushed for it, and a majority of the justices agreed to it.”

The new policy includes some restrictions:

  • Jurors and potential jurors may not be photographed.
  • Cameras and recording devices will not be allowed in juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody and evidence suppression cases.
  • No more than two television cameras and no more than two still photographers will be allowed in a courtroom at one time.
  • Victims of violent felonies, police informants and relocated witnesses may request that the judge prohibit them from being photographed.

Although the policy goes into effect Tuesday, the chief judges of Illinois’ 23 circuit courts are responsible for implementing the policy. Once a chief judge of a circuit court applies and is approved by the Supreme Court, news media may request to cover eligible cases electronically in that circuit court.

Members of the news media are responsible for applying for electronic coverage each time they want to cover a particular case. Specific details of the application process will be released Tuesday.

At this point, the program is being billed as “pilot project,” so chief judges may choose not to have their circuit courts participate. Kilbride said the effectiveness of the pilot project will be reviewed by the high court at a future date and a decision will be made on whether to continue this program.

The new policy only allows for members of the “established” news media to photograph, film or tape record sessions. Residents and those working for non-traditional news organizations, such as Internet blogs, initially are being excluded from filming or recording court sessions.

But the high court may review the policy later regarding electronic coverage of courts by residents and non-traditional media.

“I can understand a court’s desire to preserve decorum — whether it’s a photographer from a newspaper or an ordinary citizen using their cell phone to take a picture — but it important to remember that the nature of the media has changed radically in the last 10 years,” Barnhart said. “While I think this is a step in the right direction, it does distress me that some are included in this policy, and others are excluded.”

The policy does not address the use of cell phones. The intent is for only professional-quality cameras and recording devices.

Kilbride resides in Rock Island, which is part of the Quad-Cities, a metropolitan area that includes parts of Iowa and Illinois.

“I know from my experience living in the Quad-Cities that cameras in the courtroom have worked quite well on the Iowa side. They have been well accepted by judges and lawyers. I have no reason to believe that won’t be the case in Illinois,” Kilbride said.

He said the new Illinois policy is modeled after the Iowa policy, which has been in effect since 1979.

Roger Ruthhart, managing editor of The Rock Island Argus and The (Moline) Dispatch, called the new policy a positive step.

“I don’t look for this to be something we use every day, but in bigger cases, such as murder trials, I do anticipate sending a photographer,” he said. “Right now, we send a sketch artist to these types of trials. By being able to photograph, we will be able to provide the public with a more accurate depiction of what is happening in a court case.”

Although Illinois has not allowed photography or audio recordings in the state’s trial courts, it has allowed news cameras in the Supreme Court and the Illinois Appellate Court since 1983. The Supreme Court also posts audio and video of all oral arguments on its website the same day they occur.

Kilbride said he sees another benefit to the new policy.

“It will serve as good civics lesson for people to see what is happening within the courts,” he said.

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