Cook County's chief judge is giving the thumbs up to a new policy that will allow cameras and recorders inside courts on an experimental basis. During the test phase, participants will have to determine if such far-reaching media access and fair trials can, in fact, co-exist.
The aim of the policy, announced by the Illinois Supreme Court today, is to eventually pull Illinois for good out of the group of 14 states that ban extensive media access at trials.
Judge Timothy Evans,, head of the busiest court system in the state, says he'll apply to participate in the pilot project.
Evans says greater media access will help address misconceptions about courtroom procedures fostered by popular TV shows.
Evans says he'll appoint an advisory committee to recommend how to implement the policy. It'll include judges, attorneys, reporters and members of the public.
Broadcasters heralded Tuesday's decision. They have long advocated the change, citing the public's right to know.
"This is absolutely a step forward," said Jennifer Fuller, president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. "We are very excited about working with the court to show we aren't talking about a huge intrusion in the process."
She said she was "cautiously optimistic" the policy will eventually become permanent though she conceded some attorneys and judges could dig in their heels and resist the change.
The presence of cameras and recorders will help broaden the general understanding of how courts work and enable better scrutiny of how well courts are fulfilling their duties, Fuller said.
"Anytime you put sunshine on any level of government it makes people more accountable," she said. "It is always a good thing when the people can see what it happening."
The change will also help reporters do what Fuller says reporters strive to do each day: Tell more compelling and complete stories.
"This allows us to use our tools to do our jobs covering courts," she said, referring to video and audio recordings on which TV and radio stations rely. "We will be able to tell a story in the way we tell all the rest of our stories."
Barred from state courts, TV stations have often had to depend on artists to draw or paint the scene in court. Radios used reporters or other courtroom observers to convey the atmosphere to listeners.
The state has allowed cameras to be present during Supreme Court and appellate court hearings since 1983. At the time of that decision, the court continued the ban during trials because of concerns about undermining a defendant's right to a fair trial.
Tuesday's decision doesn't affect U.S. courts in Illinois, which do not permit cameras or recorders in court. Some of the highest profile trials, including the corruption trial ofimpeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich, took place in federal court.
The policy announced Tuesday is effective immediately and invites circuit courts to apply for approval from the high court to participate in the pilot project. Media can then ask to use cameras and recorders at specific trials.
The Illinois Supreme Court established numerous guidelines for its new cameras-in-the-court policy.
Trial judges will still have enormous discretion in permitting the expanded access and any requests from media to bring in their equipment into court must come at least 14 days before a trial gets under way, according to the order establishing the policy.
Witnesses or others involved in the proceedings can object to the presence of cameras, but a judge isn't obliged to grant requests to keep them out.