Just over a year ago, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride announced the launch of a pilot project to allow still and video cameras in courtrooms.
Many judicial circuit districts immediately volunteered to be a part of it. One year since the announcement, 25 counties in nine judicial circuits throughout Illinois have allowed cameras in the courtroom.
Dozens of criminal cases have been recorded, from small counties where a serial killer was being tried to large suburban counties such as DuPage, where Schaumburg police officers are charged with robbing drug dealers.
Lake County officials expect their pilot program to be running by next month, and Kendall County court officials have a test case planned. A pilot program has been approved for DeKalb County, and Kane County applied for the program in May.
The cameras are unobtrusive. Professional media representatives are acting professionally. Judges are reporting virtually no problems with the pilot programs, and judicial district officials still are tinkering with improvements.
While the Illinois Supreme Court has set up many sensible guidelines – such as protecting the identity of victims of sexual abuse, juveniles and jurors – they have left a great deal of discretion on details to local judges and circuits, since each courthouse and county is different. A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't be appropriate.
The first public meeting to discuss the pilot program for McHenry County's 22nd Judicial Circuit was held Feb. 1. Members of the local media, including several Northwest Herald employees, attended.
For the most part, judges and lawyers who attended the meeting were outspokenly opposed to the concept of allowing cameras in the courtrooms, even though they conceded the state Supreme Court eventually will mandate them.
Reaction ranged from sensible concern to downright paranoia. In nearly all instances, the novelty of cameras in the courtroom was overstated.
Just across the McHenry County border to the north, Wisconsin has allowed cameras in courtrooms since 1978. Have you heard of any great miscarriages of justice or instances of clamoring from our northern neighbors that cameras are a scourge to be eradicated? Of course not.
Head west. Iowa has allowed cameras since 1980, and Missouri since 1992. A pilot program launched in 2007 in Indiana flopped because it was too restrictive, requiring permission from all parties in a criminal or civil trial.
While McHenry County courts are not known as judicial trailblazers in Illinois – slow to adopt specialty courts such as drug and mental health courts – we were surprised at the reaction from the judges and officers of the court who addressed the issue Feb. 1.
We don't suspect that they speak for everyone associated with the courts or the public, but any steps forward will require their participation. We're puzzled as to why McHenry County officials feel this county is so much different than those surrounding us, and why they believe this county couldn't handle the change.
While there's no great rush, the current attitude isn't doing the judicial circuit or the public any good. We urge lawyers and judges to speak about their concerns with colleagues from jurisdictions that allow cameras, and not close their minds to what we think eventually will become a reality.