URBANA — Eighteen months after the Illinois Supreme Court approved a pilot project to allow cameras and audio recorders in Illinois courtrooms, judges in the Sixth Circuit have agreed to take part.
"I am happy to report that I am today making application to the Illinois Supreme Court for inclusion of the Sixth Circuit in the Court's Pilot Program for Extended Media Coverage in Judicial Proceedings," Moultrie County Judge Dan Flannell, chief judge of the circuit, said Wednesday. "A majority of the circuit judges approved the application at last Thursday's quarterly judges meeting in Tuscola."
Ironically, it was the work of Champaign County Judge Tom Difanis, once a fairly outspoken opponent of cameras in the courts, that persuaded the judges in the six counties to approve the application.
"Before the vote, I said, 'I think we should approve this and get on with it. It's a 'fait accompli' (a done deal) so we might as well get on board and get started," said Difanis, the presiding judge in Champaign County.
Flannell, a Democrat who has always been an advocate for cameras and recorders in the courtroom, said it was part of his "strategy" to put Difanis on a committee to study the issue for the Sixth Circuit — Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt counties — and make a recommendation to his fellow judges.
The Illinois Supreme Court still has the final say on whether it will happen.
"Depending on the nature of the application and their state of preparedness to start, a decision could come in a couple weeks," said Joe Tybor, spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court.
But since the court had not yet received the application as of Wednesday, Tybor couldn't give a definite time frame for acting on it.
So far, 29 Illinois counties are participating in the high court's pilot project. The closest county geographically to those in the Sixth Circuit to allow cameras and recorders in courtrooms is McLean County.
Flannell said the vote among the judges, done by a show of hands, was not unanimous but neither was it contentious. Several associate judges were also present but they did not vote.
"It was not a close vote; there was opposition that remained. I think that's been typical around the state," said Flannell, who added there were two major points that persuaded his colleagues to shed even more public light on their courtrooms.
"The thing that carried the day more than anything else, is that in the pilot programs, there have been no problems. It's been flawless and seamless once they get things in place. That seems to be the report we hear at every chief judges' meeting and there are not that many requests," Flannell said.
The other, and perhaps even stronger reason for the judges' approval: "Any judge who wants to say no can say no. That increases everybody's comfort level," Flannell said.
The Supreme Court rules for cameras and recorders are lengthy but the bottom line is, if a judge doesn't want them in his or her courtroom, the judge can refuse the request without saying why and there is no appeal of that. If the judge is willing but other parties object, the judge has to hold a hearing. That's why a medium has to apply to the judge at least two weeks before a court proceeding for permission to have a camera or recorder there.
The rules say there may be no cameras or recorders in any juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression, or trade secret case. Likewise, coverage of jury selection, the jury and individual jurors is prohibited.
Flannell said he's heard nothing from the electronic media about wanting a presence in any particular case, even in the busier counties of Macon and Champaign.
Difanis said the only request in Champaign County came earlier this year from The News-Gazette, wanting to photograph and record an order of protection hearing involving Champaign Mayor Don Gerard and his ex-girlfriend, Laura Huth. Difanis denied the request on the grounds that Champaign County was not among those counties granted permission by the Supreme Court to have the pilot project.
Assuming the high court approves the circuit's request, the logistics of how it will all work still have to be clarified.
Chiefly, a media coordinator, through whom requests are funneled to the judiciary, has to be named. Flannell said that person would be paid the same as he gets for the extra duty of being chief judge for the circuit — nothing.
Additionally, Difanis plans to limit video cameras in Champaign County to only one of the larger courtrooms where there is more space in the back for the public. That means judges in higher profile cases would have to do some courtroom swapping. And if the television or radio stations need any special kind of wiring in the courtroom to accommodate their feeds, they will have to pay for it as the Supreme Court rules say the counties will not incur any expense for that.
The main demand is that any cameras, still or video, be unobtrusive, the rules say.
The entire Supreme Court policy, M.R. 2634, is located on the court's website at http://state.il.us/court/SupremeCourt/Announce/2012/012412.pdf.