Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Illinois courts prepare for news cameras

Preparations are underway for the first news cameras to record proceedings inside some Illinois courtrooms, two weeks after the Illinois Supreme Court gave the green light to broadcast video and audio coverage in the state’s circuit courts.

On Jan. 31, the Illinois Supreme Court chose the 14th Judicial Circuit in northwestern Illinois to be the first jurisdiction to allow cameras and tape recorders, and Chief Judge Jeffrey O’Connor met with local media Monday to establish procedures for news coverage.

“It’s a new day in Illinois,” O’Connor told the media, according to the Quad-City Times.

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride first announced the new project Jan. 24, saying each circuit had to apply to be a part of the program. A week later, Kilbride said the 14th Circuit, which spans four counties near the border with Iowa, had been selected as the first jurisdiction to test the project.

Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor told The Daily on Monday three other circuits have applied to the pilot program. Cameras have been approved only for the 14th Circuit so far, and all recording will continue to be banned in the 22 other circuits.

“We want to see if this can be done right first, if the media can exist in the trial environment,” Tybor said.

Tybor said Kilbride has long been a believer in transparency, which is what prompted the Illinois Supreme Court to take a look at the issue.

“He asked his colleagues if they would re-examine the issue, which has been dead in Illinois for quite some time,” Tybor said. “They unanimously passed it.”

Tybor added that Kilbride works and lives in the Rock Island, Ill., area, across the Mississippi River from Iowa, a state where cameras have been allowed to film court room proceedings since 1979.

Rock Island, Ill., is part of Quad Cities, a group of five cities along the Illinois-Iowa border. These cities share the same media market, and the stations – in both Iowa and Illinois – already have experience with electronic recordings in Iowa court proceedings. In last week’s news release on the decision, O’Connor said he believes it will be “a seamless transition” for the local media.

The 14th Circuit’s proximity to neighboring Iowa was a significant factor in the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision to allow cameras there first, Tybor said.

“He’s seen court proceedings televised on his own television,” Tybor said. “So he wanted to adapt (Iowa’s rules) to Illinois’ unique situation, without jeopardizing or risking rights to fair trial.”

Kilbride and the Supreme Court based a lot of the guidelines to the new project on Iowa’s rules.

Members of the media must request “extended coverage,” referring to video and audio recordings, 14 days prior to the court date. The courts can allow a maximum of two video cameras and two still photographers in the courtrooms, according to the news release.

Tybor said it is up to the members of the media to “pool their coverage” and decide among themselves which outlets get the opportunity to use video cameras and photographers. If they can’t reach an agreement to share the information, there will not be any coverage, he said.

Not all cases will be televised. Divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression, trade secret and juvenile cases will be exceptions, and in cases involving sexual abuse, the media cannot record the testimony of the victim unless the victim agrees to it. As for other cases, the witness can object to media coverage, although the decision is ultimately up to the presiding judge.

Northwestern law Prof. Cristina Tilley said the guidelines ensure limited impact to court proceedings.

“They tried to organize it so that the cameras would be respectful of people and interests that can be vulnerable in court,” Tilley said.

Tilley added there have been several studies done in other states that surveyed judges and lawyers about the impact of cameras, and these studies have found that their impact on the court culture is minimal.

For Medill Prof. Joe Mathewson, the presence of cameras in courtrooms will be particularly informative about how courts operate.

“Most people have never been in court to see trial, so it’s a great way to see the proceedings,” he said.

Tilley, a former journalist, said she’s particularly interested in looking at how the media use their new court access.

“I see three different models, and some would work better than others,” she said. “There’s the C-SPAN model, which is gavel to gavel coverage, and there would be little commentary on the part of the reporters… There’s another model where reporters could give context and background, not just about the particular case they’re reporting on, but about how the court system functions… But there’s also the third model, which is the least likely to educate the public, in which the media picks the most sensational 15-second clip and shows it without giving a lot of context.”

Mathewson agreed and said journalists have a lot of new responsibility once given access to the courts.

“Journalists have an obligation to comply with all the rules of the court,” he said. “It is important for whoever is admitted as a journalist to not undermine the dignity and fairness of the proceedings.”

The first true test of the 14th Circuit cameras will be the upcoming trial of Nicholas Sheley, scheduled to begin March 5. Sheley has been accused of killing eight people during a 2008 murder spree in Illinois and Missouri. He was already convicted in November of one murder from the spree.

There are two high-profile trials elsewhere in the state that could potentially be televised: the trial of Drew Peterson, a Bolingbrook police sergeant accused of killing his third wife, and the trial of William Balfour, who has been accused of killing the mother, brother and nephew of actress Jennifer Hudson. A Cook County judge has set his trial to begin April 9.

The Circuit Court of Cook County was among the four jurisdictions that have applied for the new program. Tybor said he is uncertain as to when Cook County courts could expect an approval.

“If the experiment in the 14th Circuit goes well, there is no question that it will come sometime to Cook County,” Tybor said.

Prior to the pilot project, Illinois was among the 14 states that severely restrict or disallow cameras in trial courtrooms. The Illinois Supreme Court decision could prompt those other states to follow suit.

“There has been a lot of advocacy for it in the media, and there have also been a lot of judges who are pursuing it,” Tilley said.

The new project also revives the debate over whether the U.S. Supreme Court should potentially pursue a similar policy. Mathewson wrote a column for CNN last week on the issue, calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to allow cameras to record the oral arguments on President Barack Obama’s health care bill, which will occur later this year.

“… the Supreme Court, despite numerous requests and even proposed congressional action extending over several decades, has never permitted television,” he wrote. “The justices fear the presence of cameras
would tarnish the court’s dignified proceedings. But bear in mind that the Supreme Court doesn’t try cases, so there’s no danger of uncorking sensational trials like those of O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony or Michael Jackson’s doctor.”

Mathewson told The Daily on Monday that the newly appointed justices to the Court have seemed open to the idea, although those who have been in the Court for decades feel different. Mathewson said he ultimately thinks the Court’s fears are “ungrounded.”

“Their resistance doesn’t hold water,” he said. “They need to look at the long and salutary experience that state supreme courts have had with cameras in the courtrooms. Even if their worst fears are realized, they could also reverse the decision. But I think once they get started, they’d realize there was no downside, and the public was better educated as a result.”

But before the media starts setting up their cameras inside the U.S. Supreme Court, the Illinois pilot program must first succeed on the local level.

“If it can’t work in the 14th Circuit, it may not work anywhere,” Tybor said.

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Illinois courts prepare for news cameras