No go locally for camera project

Staving off the inevitable — cameras in courtrooms — is not a productive pastime.

The sand is running out of the hourglass, meaning that modernity in the form of cameras in the courtroom eventually will come to Champaign County.

But don't hold your breath because the Luddites say no, at least for now, and Dan Flannell, the presiding judge of the six-county Sixth Judicial Circuit, isn't inclined to overrule them.

Flannell acknowledged last week that there are "a good number (of judges) who are still uncomfortable with the idea" of cameras in courtrooms.

In other words, they're agin' these new-fangled cameras and nobody can make them be fer 'em.

"We recognize this is coming, probably sooner than later," Flannel said of the Sixth Circuit, which includes the counties of Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Moultrie, Macon and Piatt.

Cameras in the courtroom have been a long time coming in Illinois. But they are common in many other states, a reality that prompted Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride to announce a pilot project for introducing cameras in January 2012.

A year later, substantial progress has been made.

Twenty-eight of Illinois' 102 counties have permitted cameras into their trial courts over the past 12 months. Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor said "the reports (about them) have been quite positive" and that any issues that came up were "easily resolvable."

Cameras have recorded oral arguments in state appeals courts and the Supreme Court since 1983. Audio and video of Supreme Court arguments are posted on the court's website while audio is posted on the website of the appellate courts.

In other words, it's hardly revolutionary change, and the evidence shows there's nothing to fear anyway.

Being self-styled kings of their courtrooms, however, some judges are reluctant to believe that and are loath to introduce an X factor into the proceedings.

So judges raise concerns about lawyers misbehaving in front of the cameras. That's an unconvincing complaint because one of the fundamental duties of a judge is to oversee the behavior of lawyers. If lawyers are running amok, as some are wont to do, it's the judge's fault.

They raise concerns about juror privacy and undue publicity involving child witnesses or warring spouses. But under Kilbride's proposed rules, media coverage of jurors is off-limits. (Besides, any enterprising reporter can track down a juror to see if he/she wishes to talk.) As for juvenile or divorce proceedings, Kilbride's policy excludes cameras from those proceedings.

What the news media is mostly interested in covering are criminal cases and the occasional civil case that, for whatever reason, has some news value.

The reality is that, for the most part, the news media, especially the TV media, is mostly uninterested in what goes on at the courthouse because most of what goes on is of interest only to individual litigants.

So for most judges on most days, cameras are a nonissue.

To the extent there is media interest, it's always been our position that allowing cameras into courtrooms is the best advertising the judicial system could get.

What people would see is not the dramatic foolishness so common in movie and TV dramas, but sober, even-handed proceedings conducted in a careful fashion by legal professionals. If they are not that, there's a problem far beyond the presence of a news cameras.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule, like the O.J. Simpson case of yore and today's salacious Jodi Arias case. But there are hundreds of courtrooms across the country, and people can count TV spectaculars like those on one hand.

It's time for Champaign County's judges to get with Justice Kilbride's program.

If the counties of Union, Williamson and Jackson in deep southern Illinois can come to grips with cameras in the courtroom, there's no reason the judiciary in the Sixth Judicial Circuit cannot do the same.

Judge Flannell said he has appointed Champaign County Presiding Judge Thomas Difanis, who is among those less than enthusiastic about the idea, to lead a committee to look into the issue and report back to him on a quarterly basis.

That charge would suggest that Flannell is expecting multiple reports explaining why the local status quo should be preserved. It should not.

It's time for cameras in the courtroom, not just in neighboring McLean County but in the area counties that make up the Sixth Judicial Circuit.

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SaintClarence27 wrote on February 17, 2013 at 2:02 pm

This is a dishonest strawman argument, and unfair. While I tend to disagree with the judges' not wanting cameras in courtrooms, to phrase their argument as "In other words, they're agin' these new-fangled cameras and nobody can make them be fer 'em" and calling judges "self-styled kings of their courtrooms" is unfair and unreasonable. It does nothing to positively advance the argument.

Further down the article talks about misbehaving lawyers, etc., and basically says they're all a nonissue. I don't think it's a nonissue at all - when you observe something, it changes. Cameras DO change things, and to pretend that they don't is unreasonable.Instead, the argument should be that it changes things for the better - a more open, transparent process.

rsp wrote on February 18, 2013 at 6:02 am

I didn't see one word about the problem of reluctant witnesses who do not want to add to their burdens by being on camera. If I have to be a witness again I definitely don't want to have my appearance "critiqued" on whether or not I helped which side and have it live on forever online for my children and grandchildren. I especially don't want clips used to "prove what I meant" when I said those words. Witnesses should have the same right to move on that the criminals do. I am a crime victim. The perpetrator was released from prison two years ago. At first I was scared but then I realized he wouldn't know what I looked after all this time, and my name is different. Just think if the media was so thoughtful to make sure he had my picture.