Two years after the Illinois Supreme Court decided to permanently allow cameras and microphones in courthouses, only half of counties statewide have actually implemented broadcast trial coverage.
The state’s highest court said the four-year experiment went so well, it was ready to make the program permanent. It allows chief judges in each judicial circuit to request to the high court extended coverage for court proceedings, criminal, and civil trials on a case-by-case basis.
Extended media coverage (EMC) has strict guidelines for when and how electronic journalists can use a limited number of fixed video cameras, still cameras, and microphones to record certain proceedings including trials.
Edith Brady-Lunny of The Pantagraph facilitates requests in her court-designated role of media coordinator. She said some chief judges seem reluctant to approve broadcast coverage and in other instances, media are simply not making requests.
She told members of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association in Springfield to apply for the ability to use the tools of their trade to help the public better understand the trial court system.
“The strength of this is in showing the public how the courts operate," she said. "So the more different kinds of cases you can show people, the greater the program works and you get experiences with more judges.
“A big part of this is actually educating judges in how the program works and the more experience they have with it the better they are and we are too," she added.
Brady-Lunny also advised journalists to get experience during smaller cases.
“I think the worst thing that can happen is waiting for a big case to come down the pike and then everybody is nervous. The lawyers are nervous because they don’t know what to expect and some of the media don’t know how to conduct themselves or know what the rules are, so the more practice you get, the better,” she said.
Not Everyone Is A Journalist
Each judicial circuit approved for extended media coverage (EMC) has a designated media coordinator chosen from among journalists who cover the courts. Reporters notify the media coordinator for assistance in filling out the required request form.
However, every chief judge interprets the Illinois Supreme Court rules in their own way so the approach is not entirely uniform.
For example in McLean County, credentialed journalists can use a cell phone to provide tweets from the courtroom. That's at the descretion of the chief judge so not all circuits allow journalists to have cell phones.
Brady-Lunny has been given the added responsibility of giving credentials to requestors to certify they are capable of distributing professional-level photos, video, or audio to other reporters in a pool-style fashion.
She has turned down a blogger’s request because, according to Brady-Lunny, the individual did not meet the criteria set out by the chief judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit which includes McLean County. There have been roughly 50 cases in the circuit that have included extended media coverage and generally prosecutors have not objected.
However, some public defenders routinely object and use a six-page “boilerplate” list of reasons, according to Brady-Lunny.
“They’ve not been very good at it because they’re not very good objections,” she said. Specifically, Brady-Lunny said some public defenders discuss non-existent possibilities because the Supreme Court already addressed concerns when implementing rules governing EMC.
Even so, Brady-Lunny sees one flaw in the rules. They don’t allow for an appeal if the request for use of recording equipment or a camera is denied.
“Maybe they want to look at some kind of review process if there are situations where judges completely turn down coverage because they are biased or there’s something about the whole concept (they don’t like),” she said.
The Illinois News Broadcasters Association and other journalism organizations fought for decades to get extended media coverage. The experiment was initiated by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride in 2012.
“This will be another step to see if we can carefully balance the goals of greater openness and access with the guaranteed rights of defendants and parties to have fair proceedings," he said at the time.
During the four-year pilot, more than 450 media requests for extended media coverage were made and chief judges reported no significant issues. In 2016, Chief Justice Rita Garman announced the extended media coverage program would be permanent.
“At every level of the judicial system, we do the people’s work, and the people have an interest in observing how the judicial process functions,” Garman said.
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