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Cameras in Courts: More Than Half the State's Judicial Circuits Participate in Pilot Program

WUIS/Illinois Issues

After the media frenzy at the 1930s trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, the American Bar Association enacted policies barring radio, newsreels and photo cameras from trials. Federal and state courts followed suit. For more than 70 years, reporters could only use pen and paper. But as technology changed, states began to allow electronic media into their supreme, appellate and circuit courts.

On January 24, 2012, Illinois became the 36th state to allow cameras and microphones in the circuit courts. Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride announced the pilot “Extended Media Coverage” policy, which allows circuit courts to opt in. But although the Supreme Court is not forcing the policy on the courts, there have been some concerns about allowing such coverage. 

“I think those who are the skeptics, whether lawyers or judges, I think it’s important for them to be involved in the process and to raise those issues, to bring it to the court, to talk to our press secretary, Joe Tybor,” Kilbride says. “I think it’s important for those who have reservations about it to talk to those who are involved. Right now, the approach we’ve taken during my term as chief is to let it evolve.”

News cameras have been allowed in the state Supreme Court and appellate courts since 1983. Audio and video of all Supreme Court oral arguments and audio of appellate court arguments are posted at http://state.il.us/court. Twitter has been used to communicate court orders, opinions and announcements.

“I practiced law in the Quad Cities for 20 years before I joined the court,” Kilbride says. “And Iowa’s had cameras in the courtroom for many years. Our local TV stations would cover trials in Scott County, in the Davenport area. And as a lawyer, I observed all kinds of trial coverage and never heard any problems from lawyers or judges.” 

When candidate Kilbride was campaigning in the 1990s in Galesburg, a radio reporter asked him about cameras in the courtroom. “And I thought, ‘That’s kind of odd. Why would a radio person ask about cameras?’” Kilbride says. “Well, obviously his interest was more than just cameras; it was the radio as well. I said, ‘The way I view all rules of the Illinois Supreme Court is that they’re rules that are there to make the court work well. And if they need to be reviewed and improved, whether it’s that rule or any other rule, I’d be committed to that process.’”

“Without the full support of the court, I wouldn’t have been able to proceed,” says Kilbride, whose term as chief justice ends this month. “I did put it on the table, and folks were open to the idea. Of course, individuals had different concerns and questions. We didn’t propose it just as a blank check. Our press secretary spent a lot of time researching, not just Iowa but other states, too. And I think the comparison, when we showed the border states, was persuasive to show that it had a record that worked well.”

Extended media coverage in any trial is subject to the authority of the presiding trial judge. The recent policy reinforces the authority of the judge to maintain decorum and prevent distractions, guarantee the safety of the courtroom and participants, and ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice. To date, 13 of the state’s 24 circuits participate in the pilot. The most-recent is the 6th Circuit, in east-central Illinois, which gained permission in September. 

Pressure to allow cameras and microphones in trial courts began decades ago. In 1978, Bill Miller, director of the Sangamon State University (now University of Illinois Springfield) Public Affairs Reporting Program, filed the first of several requests on behalf of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and other media organizations. The Supreme Court denied all of those petitions without comment. With the new pilot program, the court has acted without a petition being filed.

“We’re certainly standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, and I’m so grateful for the people who did fight for all those years,” says Jennifer Fuller of WSIU Radio in Carbondale and president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. “The experiment is good on so many levels. Media are so competitive, whether it’s broadcasters that are competing for the same audience, or print versus broadcast, or radio versus TV. This is bringing us together for the common good, providing information and context to our audience, wherever that audience is.”

The Illinois State Bar Association has also weighed in. “The ISBA’s position is we are fully in support of the Supreme Court’s pilot program for extended media coverage,” says ISBA President Paula Holderman, an attorney with Winston and Strawn in Chicago. “And I think one of the reasons that we favor it is the way it’s currently set up. Having the discretion in the judge to make that decision, to take into account various factors that could be present in any given case, I think that’s where we felt more comfortable.”

The courts and the bar association also share a concern about funding for the judicial branch in a time of government austerity. 

“The federal courts are under the sequestration budget, but the state courts are also in a very challenging time,” Holderman says. “Frankly, if you don’t have enough money for your judicial system, things are going to come to a halt. It’s not just criminal cases that the courts hear; we have civil cases, cases involving businesses, cases involving your personal life. I think access to the courts and people being able to see the courts in action is crucial.” 

The bar association president also shared some issues that jurists have raised. “One of the concerns that I have as a lawyer is how the press is going to cover a case. I think it would be unfortunate if, for instance, they only covered one witness on the part of the prosecution side and you never heard the defendant’s side,” Holderman says. “The reporters, journalists, anybody doing news media coverage, do need to understand what it is that they’re watching.” She says schools of journalism should enhance their curriculum on covering the judicial branch of government.

The issue of how to treat crime victims in the media is also a concern heard across the state. “The Chicago Tribune often will not report the name of a minor victim, especially in a sexual attack case, which I think is appropriate,” Holderman says. “But we certainly understand the public’s need to know, and we actually encourage the public to have a better understanding of how the legal system works.” She sees the challenge as finding a proper balance between the right to know and a victim’s right to privacy.

Although Cook County is not currently part of the pilot program, MSNBC television was granted access for a graduation ceremony in Treatment Court, where Judge Rosemary Grant Higgins presides. In the special court, women who have been exploited are given the opportunity to rehabilitate their lives. “I have a hybrid view,” Higgins says. “Many public defenders are not on board with cameras in the courtroom. Privacy is an issue. For the MSNBC program, we had some faces blurred to protect privacy concerns. There’s a concern for witnesses in felony cases. Would cameras in the courts prevent drug case witnesses from coming forward?”

But Higgins also sees a positive side to more media coverage of the courts. “It is good for the public to see the efforts we are making to turn lives around. The community needs to see what we are doing so they can join us.”

As has been the pattern across the state, 11th Circuit Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb set up meetings with judges, the legal community and the media to work out concerns before beginning the pilot. It took 10 months of planning and preparation, according to William Scanlon, 11th Circuit Court administrator. Scanlon worked with media representatives on technical arrangements to set up one courtroom for video coverage with a feed to pool reporters. “It’s been a very positive experience for the court. Coverage has been very balanced. The act of setting up cameras has not been a burden to the judges, jurors or others. On a case-by-case basis, the coverage has not raised any security issues,” he says. 

Bill Workman, first assistant state’s attorney in McLean County, served as prosecutor for a homicide case in May of 2013 with extended media coverage. He reported no complaints. “The defense did file an objection to the pilot media coverage, but it was too late and not granted,” Workman says. “In that case, the defendant’s mother objected to being videotaped when appearing as a witness, and no one objected to her motion, which was granted. I haven’t seen anyone play to the cameras, something you’ve heard others raise. In fact, I usually forget they’re there.” 

The Supreme Court rules call for local media to designate one of their own as a coordinator. Edith Brady-Lunny, a reporter for the Bloomington Pantagraph, is the 11th Circuit media coordinator. “We’ve had good participation from several TV stations, the radio stations, as well as the Pantagraph,” says Brady-Lunny. “We have a division of labor. TV is doing the video. We’re doing the still photography. Then we upload to websites and are able to share each other’s work. It’s worked out very well.” 

Brady-Lunny values the opportunity to educate people and looks forward to covering civil cases. “It’s not just about exploiting high-profile cases; it’s an opportunity to educate the public and show them what goes on in their local courts,” she says. 

McLean County, unlike some others in the state, allows laptops and cell phones in the courthouse. The use of laptops by reporters covering the trial of Christopher Harris, who was eventually convicted of murdering five members of a Beason family, was also permitted in Peoria, where the trial had been moved. Online blogs and Twitter entries during the court sessions allowed reporters real-time contact with the public during the trial. According to Scanlon, the access worked very effectively and was not disruptive.

Tony Capriolo, managing editor of the Local News Service in Chicago, is media coordinator for DuPage and Kane counties. He coordinated coverage of the three-week murder trial of Johnny Borizov, who was convicted of murdering three members of a Darien family. “That case was streamed live on ABC, NBC and other places,” Capriolo says. “DuPage County was our first big test. It seemed to go really well. In fact, we even had a juror, after the fact, say that when the judge admonished her about not to pay any attention to the cameras, she went, ‘Cameras, what cameras?’ So that was good to hear, that even the jury didn’t really know we were there day in and day out.” 

Defense attorney Thomas Glasgow of Schaumburg says: “For the public, it is very good because it takes away some of the mystique. Some defendants are stone-cold terrified when they come into court. They don’t know what is going to happen to them. Unveiling some of that mystery is important. Having cameras can also have an impact on the way things are presented. The law is very powerful; it can take away your life and liberty. Prosecutors are very powerful, and cameras may temper that.”

Enhanced media coverage has ranged from newspaper photographers taking a few photos at various trials to gavel-to-gavel coverage of a Kankakee County murder trial that was broadcast live over WGN’s Chicago cable channel, CLTV. To date, minor technical or procedural problems have been worked out in the various circuits among the media and court personnel. No disruptions of court proceedings have been reported.

“It’s been successful in a collaborative kind of way,” Kilbride says. “I did say from day one that in my view, it would have to sell itself. And you and your colleagues in the news media have really approached this in an extremely professional way — working cooperatively and collaboratively. I can’t really name any surprises that are negative — problems that I’ve heard about. It’s been more positive than I anticipated.” 

Jim Grimes is an adjunct media instructor at Joliet Junior College and Lincoln Land Community College. He is also a news correspondent for WQNA Radio in Springfield. Grimes serves as chair of the Cameras in the Courts Committee of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and is a member of the Illinois Broadcasters Association’s Academics Committee.

Illinois Issues, October 2013

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