When Judge Tom Difanis opened his newspaper on Jan. 24, he was as surprised as anyone to learn that photographers would be allowed to take pictures of some proceedings and recorders could tape in his courtroom.
That had never happened in the 35 years he has been inside courtrooms, both as a prosecutor and a judge, even though the idea has been around about as many years.
"None of us knew," said Difanis, presiding judge of Champaign County.
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, who did not serve as a trial court judge before his election to the state's highest court in 2000, announced that cameras and recorders will be allowed in circuit courtrooms for the first time in state history. That leaves about a dozen states with restrictions on cameras in trial courts.
On Feb. 2, the first pictures to come out of an Illinois circuit courtroom — Illinois supreme and appellate courts have allowed cameras for oral arguments since 1983 — were in a Rock Island County case involving post-conviction relief for a school teacher convicted in a sexual assault case.
Because the defendant wasn't present, the images featured the judge and attorneys involved — not exactly riveting photojournalism but a monumental step forward in the eyes of journalists.
"This is a significant development and long, long overdue," said John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette in Champaign for 10 years and a newsman for 35 years.
"Cameras have been in courtrooms in other places for years, and there's been no ill effect from having them there. I don't frankly know why an experiment is even necessary to further open up the courtrooms in Illinois. The fact of the matter is, the people and the judicial system are best served by the fullest access that can possibly be granted," Foreman opined.
The "experiment" Foreman referred to were the strings attached to Kilbride's order: circuits interested in letting cameras and recorders into courtrooms have to ask the Supreme Court for permission to do so.
To date, chief judges in four circuits have applied for that permission. Only the Fourteenth Circuit — Rock Island, Henry, Whiteside and Mercer counties — has actually been granted the go-ahead. Requests for coverage in Cook, Kankakee and Madison counties are under consideration.
The upshot of that caveat is that many Illinois courtrooms will remain closed for a long time to come to cameras and recorders as the chiefs in the various circuits wait and see how their more willing-to-change colleagues work out the bugs.
"I want to know what the other judges think," said Piatt County Judge John Shonkwiler, chief of the Sixth Judicial Circuit which includes Champaign, DeWitt, Douglas, Macon, Moultrie and Piatt counties.
"I know it's a done deal ... but we had no knowledge this thing was coming down the pike. There was no consultation. There are mechanical details on where the cameras should be. Should they be out in the hall, in the courtroom? We don't know those things at this point," Shonkwiler said.
Millard Everhart, chief judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit that includes Vermilion, Coles, Cumberland, Clark and Edgar counties, is also waiting to see how the judges in his circuit feel before applying.
"There's nothing wrong with wait and see as long as you start preparing," Everhart said.
Just back from the conference of chief judges earlier this month, Everhart said the topic was discussed at length by the chief judges. His feeling is that the Supreme Court has a good mix of counties willing to conduct the experiment for the time being, giving his circuit a bit more time to get ready for the inevitable.
The Fourteenth Circuit may have had an edge in getting the go-ahead for a couple of reasons: Kilbride is from Rock Island, and the media in the Quad Cities area have loads of experience working in Iowa courts, where cameras have been allowed since 1979.
The Illinois Supreme Court fashioned its rules for cameras in the courts in large part after Iowa's.
Mike Ortiz is the chief photographer for KWQC-TV in Davenport, Iowa, and has served as the media coordinator on the Iowa side in his area for about seven years. He works as the liaison between the media that want extended coverage of a case and the courts.
"My job is to make sure that everybody is treated fairly and that expanded media coverage requests get in in a timely manner," said Ortiz, a 25-year veteran of KWQC who juggles the media coordinator duties in addition to his chief photographer responsibilities for no extra compensation.
The Illinois rules say requests have to be submitted for each case two weeks before the scheduled start of the proceedings to the judge, the court administrator, the state's attorney and the defense attorney, any of whom can object.
That happened in Whiteside County in the case of Nicholas Sheley, accused of killing eight people in Illinois and Missouri. The prosecutor asked that cameras and recorders not be allowed in his second murder trial and the defense attorney joined in the request. But on Friday the judge hearing the case said that cameras and recorders will be allowed. He also continued the case, originally scheduled to begin March 5, to June 11.
Todd Mizener, director of photography for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus newspapers, breathed a sigh of relief when Ortiz agreed to serve as the area media coordinator for the Illinois courts.
"That takes a lot of the hard work out of it because Mike has done this before," Mizener said.
Ortiz and Mizener said within days of the Supreme Court announcement, several area journalists sat down with Fourteenth Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey O'Connor, whom they both called extremely accommodating and eager to make the experiment in his circuit succeed.
The men agreed that there is more equipment required for the television folks to get audio and video feeds at the same time.
"Still pictures are not a problem. Digital is our friend," said Mizener, who said still photographers can easily download pictures to laptops and send them back to the office. There are even silencers available for still cameras to deaden the sound of clicking shutters.
But Ortiz said area stations came together with equipment and ideas, and on Feb. 16, when they covered another hearing for the convicted school teacher, "everything went perfect."
"Even though we're all competitors, in the last couple of weeks we've actually played as a team to make this happen," he said.
The rules say that no more than two still photographers and two video cameras may be in a courtroom at one time. That means finding places in the courtrooms for everyone to stand so that they can observe and record what's going on while at the same time trying not to distract jurors or witnesses.
Off limits for any photographers will be jurors, child victims, sex victims, undercover police officers, police informants and anyone else the judge says can't be photographed. The rules give wide latitude to the judge to maintain control of his or her own courtroom.
Back in Champaign County, Difanis is concerned about those things as well as minimizing distractions.
"If you're in, you're in," he said, meaning that he doesn't want photographers coming and going until there is a court recess.
For that very reason, Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz doesn't think the cameras will be a challenge.
"Jury trials are not all that exciting. There's a whole lot of procedure and frankly boring testimony in the course of a difficult trial. It's not riveting television. It's not meant to be. The bar, both in my office and the trial bar in Champaign County, are very professional and I don't see them playing to the camera.
"I only see this as being something the media would want to take on if there was a high-profile case going on because the rules are not designed for TV to come and go and film a sound bite. It's really designed for recording the entire trial. Frankly, today's media don't have the resources or the interest in sitting through an entire trial," she said.
"With our limited resources, it's up to us and our bosses and organizations to think exactly how important this is. As great a ruling and as exciting as it is, it opens a can of worms that we need to gently work our way through until we can figure out the work flow," he said. "We were blissfully not having to deal with this."
How the states handle cameras in courtrooms
On Jan. 24, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an order allowing cameras and recorders in Illinois trial courts on an experimental basis. The high court's rules for that coverage can be found in a seven-page order available at http://www.bit.ly/ngcourt .
In the release announcing that historic decision, Supreme Court spokesman Joy Tybor said Illinois was one of only 14 states where cameras in the trial courts were either disallowed, or allowed with so many restrictions that they were hardly used.
To see how Illinois stacks up against other states in terms of what's allowed in courtrooms, go to the Radio Television Digital News Association website that features state-by-state thumbnail sketches: http://www.bit.ly/ngcameras .
This story appeared in print on Feb. 26.