Local attorneys have mixed feelings over the state’s new pilot program of allowing news cameras into courtrooms.
Belleville personal injury attorney Tom Keefe Jr. said placing cameras in the courtroom will alter the judicial process.
“I think it’s a bad idea,” Keefe said. “Once you put cameras in the courtroom, you’re going to change the process. You’re going to have lawyers playing to the camera and have witnesses reluctant to come to court and testify.”
On Tuesday, Illinois Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride announced a new pilot program in Illinois, permitting local courts to allow news cameras and electronic news recording in trial courtrooms. Once a circuit is approved by the Supreme Court, media may request to electronically cover eligible cases in that court.
Keefe said another problem with cameras is having jurors who are inadvertently photographed.
“With any issue, you have to weigh the benefits and the detriments on the other,” Keefe said. “It’s a question of affecting the process. I’m afraid that people won’t act naturally.”
Alton attorney Charles Armbruster, a personal injury attorney whose client recently won $2.3 million in a case against Imo’s pizza, doesn’t believe placing cameras in the courtroom would affect how he tries a case, since courtrooms are public, and anyone who wants to may watch.
“Anyone who tries cases knows there are people watching,” he said. “As a non-psychologist this camera gets lost in the background. If you can do it with human beings watching, you can do it with a camera there.
“It might help clarify what’s going on in people’s mind and how things are handled and why they are decided the way they are.”
John Gilbert, a defense attorney in Edwardsville and Belleville, is looking forward to trying cases with expanded media in the court room.
“The main concern I have as a trial lawyer is the effect on witnesses. They’re already nervous about testifying as it is. I’m fearful that having a camera in the court room will make them even more nervous,” he added. “Some attorneys might be more dramatic if they’re on camera, but trial judges can control any conduct by the attorneys.”
Kilbride said in a news release the policy invites circuit courts to apply for approval to take part in a program described as “experimental.”
Madison County Chief Circuit Judge Ann Callis also acknowledged in her statement to the media that “the Supreme Court is authorizing the circuit courts to allow cameras in the courtroom on an experimental basis.”
“We are looking at the policy to determine if it is appropriate for our circuit,” she said. “If it is appropriate for us, we look forward to requesting permission from the Supreme Court to authorize the Third Circuit to participate as an approved site.”
St. Clair County Circuit Judge John Baricevic said the state court did not give advance warning of its order.
“It was new to us,” he said. “We’re trying to schedule a meeting on what to do next. We’re interested in it. We’ll review the order.”
Until now, Illinois has been one of 14 states where cameras in trial courtrooms were either disallowed or allowed on such a restrictive basis that they were hardly utilized. The new Illinois policy gives discretion to the judge on whether to allow cameras in the courtroom. The policy also allows for a witness or a party to object to a request for extended media coverage, but is not intended that such objection will be automatically granted.
Keefe admits that having an open courtroom allows proceedings to be perceived as fair.
“There has to be a perception in the courtroom that things will be fair,” he said. “Perception has reality. That reality is furthered from a courtroom being open.”
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons wants to learn from experiences in other jurisdictions.
“I’m most concerned that we don’t allow the process to be turned into a circus,” Gibbons said. “Some high profile cases have undermined the justice system.”