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Cameras in Illinois Trial Courtrooms

By Jennifer Morris

On January 24, 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court announced the implementation of a pilot program allowing still and video cameras in Illinois trial courtrooms. Until now, Illinois was one of only fourteen states that did not allow cameras in its circuit courtrooms. The circus-like atmosphere of several sensationalized cases led many states, like Illinois, to disallow broadcast media in the courtroom. Thus, prior rules allowed only sketch artists to depict trial court proceedings.

The pilot program has begun in the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, which includes Rock Island, Henry, Mercer and Whiteside Counties. Thereafter, the chief judge of each judicial circuit may, at his or her discretion, apply to the Illinois Supreme court for permission to allow cameras in that circuit’s courtrooms.

The pilot program was announced to mixed reviews. Proponents of the use of cameras in the courtroom believe that allowing media more access will have an education effect, helping the general public to better understand what truly happens in a trial. However, while some have also praised the idea of transparency in the courtroom, others worry about distraction that the media may bring. There is especially concern regarding the behavior of witnesses. While some may “play to the audience,” others may be reluctant to testify at all.

Kevin Miller, a partner with Quinn, Johnston, Henderson, Pretorius & Cerulo and the president of the Peoria County Bar Association, has commented that neither the public nor the members of the bar association were demanding the allowance of cameras in the courtroom. However, he went on to note, “I don’t think this is a bad thing to allow public access to see what goes on in the courtroom.”

Many judges and attorneys feel that there are appropriate safeguards in place to allay any concerns. For instance, the new program does not allow coverage of jury selection or the jurors themselves, nor does it allow cameras in cases involving juveniles, divorce, adoption, and child custody. Certain witnesses (such as police informants and victims of violent crime) can request that they not be photographed. Additionally, the new program allows no more than two still and two video cameras to be present in the courtroom at one time.

Despite these safeguards, there are still some logistical problems with the program. Since each chief judge has discretion whether to request the allowance of cameras in the courtroom, there will be a variance as to when each circuit will apply, if at all. Thereafter, each circuit must act in coordination with its judges, clerks, bailiffs, staff, and sheriff’s department to implement the process. Attorneys will have to adjust their strategies as well.

Although Illinois has taken the leap to join the majority of states allowing cameras in the trial court, this pilot program remains in contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, which still prohibit the use of cameras in all courtroom proceedings.

Originally published in the Spring 2012 edition of Quinn Quarterly.