Cook County on right path with court cameras
Updated: March 3, 2012 8:31AM
Slowly, but surely, the state’s judiciary is being dragged into the 21st century.
Following on the heels of placing the official body of Illinois court opinions on the website of the Illinois Supreme Court, cameras in the courtroom appear to be yet another nod to the digital age.
High Court Chief Justice Thomas McBride filed an order earlier this week authorizing the media to send cameras into state courtrooms in an experimental program. The Cook County judiciary jumped at this opportunity, while judges in DuPage County’s 18th Judicial Circuit want to review the matter before deciding.
DuPage County Chief Judge John Elsner said he will consult with the other 14 judges about the new rules. “No decision will be made until all of the judges have been consulted,” Elsner said in a statement.
But this is a decision that can and should be made at an administrative level.
Under McBride’s order, individual circuits can opt out, although that opt-out provision defeats the purpose of opening up court proceedings to a wider audience and could leave a patchwork of rules from circuit to circuit.
The pilot project will give Illinoisans better insight into how fairly the courts operating in their name are functioning. Of course, there are potential drawbacks. But cameras in the courtroom are far from a new concept. Thirty-six states — including our neighbor to the north, Wisconsin — already allow them, and those states have not run into serious problems.
Numerous protections have been written into the Illinois program. Divorce, adoption, juvenile, child custody and some other cases will be off limits. Witnesses in forcible felony cases may object to extended media coverage. Informants, undercover officers and relocated witnesses may do so as well.
Currently, criminal and civil county courtrooms are open to the public, including reporters, but no video cameras, still cameras or recording devices are allowed in. (Juvenile court is not open to the public, but reporters are allowed in.) Since 1983, both video and still cameras have been allowed during arguments before the state’s appellate courts and the Supreme Court.
But most people don’t have the time to travel to the courthouse every day to follow a particular case. In recent years, many have been dismayed by the number of men convicted in Illinois courtrooms who later were found to be innocent.
Televised trials would give them a chance to see how things really work in their courtrooms and to judge for themselves whether or which reforms are needed.
Not everyone is a fan of courtroom cameras. Most notably, the U.S. Supreme Court bans them. But the people of Illinois should quickly come to appreciate the value and make cameras in the courtroom permanent.