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McCaleb: Embrace cameras in Illinois courts

Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 9:15 a.m. CDT

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride will be in McHenry County later this month for a noble cause.

Kilbride is the keynote speaker at an annual event recognizing local attorneys and law firms that represent less-affluent clients on a pro bono basis. His speech, “Access to Justice, a Work in Progress,” will be May 28 at the awards luncheon sponsored by Prairie State Legal Services and the McHenry County Bar Association.

Legal services are expensive. Someone with limited financial resources who needs an attorney for criminal or civil reasons can find themselves in quite a bind. So attorneys who offer their expertise and services to those who can’t afford to pay them should be recognized.

That’s not the point of today’s diatribe, though.

I’m hoping that Kilbride also delivers another important message when speaking to McHenry County attorneys, prosecutors and judges – the importance of openness in our court system.

In January 2012, Kilbride became a bit of a hero to open-government advocates when he introduced a pilot program allowing the news media to bring still and video cameras into Illinois’ circuit courtrooms under strict, agreed-upon criteria.

This greater media access to our courtrooms also means greater public access.

While most courtrooms and court cases in Illinois are open to the public, our court system generally operates between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. That’s when most people work.

The reality is, the vast majority of local residents don’t have access to our court system. So it’s the media’s role to provide the best information they can. We can do that much better with greater access through video and photography.

To date, 11 circuit courts covering 28 Illinois counties are participating in the pilot program, including Lake County to the east and Boone County to the west. To date, the pilot program has been a success.

In February, a meeting was held at the McHenry County Government Center to discuss the possibility of McHenry County’s circuit court entering the program. It was as well-received as Packers fans at a Bears convention.

One by one, judges, retired judges, attorneys and other court officials stood up and stated why greater public access was wrong for our county.

Witnesses would be afraid to testify.

Attorneys would play to the cameras.

Juries would be tainted.

People’s lives would be in danger.

It was a novel, untested idea.

Never mind that dozens of states across the country have allowed cameras in courtrooms for decades. Never mind that these stated concerns have not come to fruition elsewhere.

I’m not asking Kilbride to discuss the pilot program during his keynote address. He’s here to talk about the importance of pro bono work and to honor local attorneys who give back. That’s worthy enough.

But maybe during the hand-grabbing and informal chitchat that takes place before and after the main event, he can discuss how successful the pilot programs have been around the state.

Maybe local attorneys and judges who have concerns about allowing cameras in courtrooms can ask him about the pilot program and those concerns.

I think it’s inevitable that all Illinois courtrooms will at some point be opened to cameras. It’s a matter of when, not if. I ask those in the system to keep an open mind.

We at the Northwest Herald look forward to continue working with stakeholders on this. Taxpayers deserve nothing less.

• • •

Congratulations to the Family Health Partnership Clinic, which broke ground May 1 on its new, expanded site in Crystal Lake. FHPC uses a network of volunteer physicians to provide high-quality health care to McHenry County’s uninsured and underinsured.

The Sage Center for Care is being built on Congress Parkway, just north of Route 14, near a number of medical offices. The new clinic will be 9,200 square feet, double its current space in Woodstock and be nearer to public transportation, a larger population base, and its invaluable network of volunteers.

Almost 90 percent of the cost to build the center has been raised through private donations so far, including a startup gift from the Foglia Family Foundation. The Sage Center is named for Sage Products, whose founder is Vincent Foglia, a longtime supporter of FHPC.

The new clinic is expected to open in October.

• • •

Thanks, moms: Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, including my wife, my mom and mother-in-law and my two sisters. There aren’t enough greeting cards or flower displays in the world to show our appreciation for all that you do. The sacrifices you make for your children and your families are priceless. We certainly shouldn’t wait until today to express our thanks and our love.

Please enjoy your day.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which include the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com.

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