Cameras now allowed in some courtrooms in Sixth Circuit

Cameras now allowed in some courtrooms in Sixth Circuit

News cameras and recorders now are allowed in certain court hearings in the six counties of the Sixth Judicial Circuit: Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt. Some clarity on the rules:

It's not as simple as just walking in and turning on the iPhone or pulling out the Sony videocam. The Illinois Supreme Court has laid out extensive rules for how its "pilot project" — now almost 2 years old — should work.

Champaign County's presiding judge, Tom Difanis, has had to eat a bit of humble pie over the additional access. Long an opponent of the idea, Difanis was appointed by Chief Judge Dan Flannell, an advocate, to chair a committee to make cameras and recorders in Sixth Circuit courtrooms happen once the Supreme Court had spoken.

As one of the three judges who hear the majority of Champaign County's serious felony cases, Difanis can expect to be in the lens more often than some of his judicial colleagues. He has joked that he now needs a budget line item for makeup.

"I am not a cheerleader," he said of the new wave of access. "I will be a skeptical observer."

What follows are questions and answers about how the process will work.

Whose idea was this?

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, the most recent former chief justice for the high court, decreed in January 2012 that Illinois should launch a pilot project to allow news cameras and electronic news recording in Illinois trial courtrooms for the first time. The state has allowed cameras to be present during Supreme Court and appellate court hearings since 1983.

Will it affect the public?

Hard to say, but news consumers will now have, along with a reporter's interpretation of a hearing, pictures and sound bites to go with the story. However, photographers won't be allowed to move around the courtroom once court is in session — so don't expect much in the way of dynamic shots. The pictures and recordings can only be taken while court is in session.

Can anyone take pictures or record in a courtroom?

No. Only a recognized news agency will be given credentials for the use of cameras or recorders. And that can happen only after that media representative has applied at least two weeks in advance to the judge presiding over the hearing.

Is entry to the news cameras and recorders guaranteed?

No. Lawyers for the prosecution and the defense have the chance to object to cameras and recorders at least three days before the proceeding begins. If they object, they have to show the judge, in a hearing, good cause for their objection.

Assuming the judge says no to the electronic devices, is that decision appealable?

No. Further, each judge is in control of his or her courtroom and can pull the plug, so to speak, if he or she feels courtroom decorum is being disrupted or that the defendant is not getting a fair trial.

Might it get crowded in the gallery?

In Champaign County, the largest felony courtroom is being designated as the one for trials where cameras and recorders have asked to be present. No more than two television cameras and two still cameras may be present. If more news media want pictures or video, they will have to pool resources and share their work.

Can photos and recordings be done in any kind of proceeding?

No. Victims of sex abuse may not be photographed or recorded unless they consent. Judges may also grant requests by victims of other forcible felonies, police informants, undercover agents and relocated witnesses not to be photographed. The policy also prohibits coverage in juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression and trade secret cases. Also, jurors may not be photographed.

Who decides who is a legitimate media representative?

The presiding judge of the county. News media in general means established news gathering and reporting agencies and their representatives, whose function is to inform the public.

How many Illinois counties have allowed cameras and recorders in their courtrooms?

At least 35 counties in 13 circuits. There are 102 counties in Illinois.