February 2015 • Volume 103 • Number 2 • Page 12
Thank you for viewing this Illinois Bar Journal article. Please join the ISBA to access all of our IBJ articles and archives.
Cameras in the Cook County courts
The nation's largest unified court system is opening up to television and still-camera coverage. Here's how the pilot program works.
On January 5, 2015, the Circuit Court of Cook County began accepting requests for media cameras in the courtroom. Currently, only the Leighton Criminal Court building, located at 2600 South California Avenue in Chicago, will be part of the pilot program.
The media will be able to seek authorization to film and take still photos in felony courtrooms. Cook County's pilot program was developed pursuant to the Illinois Supreme Court's Extended Media Coverage (EMC) Policy and the high court's order authorizing extended media coverage in Illinois courts, M.R 2634. The initiative is designed to increase the transparency of the legal system.
How it works
Cook County joins 40 other counties that already allow extended media coverage. According to Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, Cook County can build on the experience of earlier participants from around the state, who were able to address various problems and concerns. Evans says that he chose the Leighton building as the first pilot site because it was "a place where the public and the media have been accustomed to going" and because "many noteworthy and celebrated cases happen" at 2600 South California.
The process itself is governed by the Illinois Supreme Court's Policy for Extended Media Coverage in the Circuit Courts of Illinois (http://www.state.il.us/court/SupremeCourt/Policies/Pdf/Extended_Media_Coverage.pdf) and by Cook County Circuit Court General Administrative Order No. 2014-12, which was entered by Evans on December 16, 2014 (http://www.cookcountycourt.org/Manage/DivisionOrders/ViewDivisionOrder/tabid/298/ArticleId/2380/GENERAL-ADMINISTRATIVE-ORDER-NO-2014-12-EXTENDED-MEDIA-COVERAGE.aspx). The process is designed to allow the media direct access while maintaining the decorum of the courtroom and ensuring the fair and impartial administration of justice.
All requests for extended media coverage will be submitted to the clerk's office via the program's media coordinator, Robert Graves, who is a photo editor for the Associated Press. According to Graves, one request has already been submitted seeking access to a proceeding in the case related to the homicide of Chicago policeman Thomas Wortham. Graves said that requests should be filed 14 days in advance, a timeframe that also appears in the Illinois Supreme Court's EMC Policy.
Once a request is submitted to the clerk's office, the court media liaison provides written notice of the request to counsel of record, pro se parties, the presiding judge, and Evans as chief judge. Parties to the case can file objections to the request, as can witnesses. Objections must be made at least three days before the beginning of the proceeding.
Notice of any objections will be directed to all parties, the court, and the media coordinator. The presiding judge will then enter a written order granting or denying the request. The order will also specify the scope of the coverage. For example, judges may order the media to install temporary alterations to the courtroom, such as a screen to protect the identities of jury members.
The first step
Evans says that he has "every intention" to expand the program to the Richard J. Daley Center and the suburban Cook County courthouses. Extended media coverage at the Leighton building is simply the "first step on the journey," he said.
He is particularly enthusiastic about the expansion of the program into Cook County's civil courtrooms. Evans says that during the recent glut of foreclosure lawsuits, people didn't come to court because they feared that the proceedings would be more like a "Judge Judy-type TV show." Allowing the media broader access to courtroom proceedings will show the public that hearings are not conducted for "entertainment value" and that real courtroom activity is "vastly different."
Increasing transparency helps foster this public awareness of the process which, in turn, should inspire people to "resolve disputes in court and not in the street," Evans says. He notes that 5,000 families are still in their homes because they came to court instead of ignoring a foreclosure lawsuit.
When asked whether he thinks there will be a significant media presence in civil courtrooms, he says that many people "have forgotten that we have many cases on the civil side that are important." In particular, tragedies like plane crashes and train accidents lead to newsworthy litigation, he says.
Evans says the program will have a net benefit overall because "transparency lets people see how a fair, impartial justice system is the cornerstone of our democracy and allows them to see the value of our democratic republic." He says success of the system in Cook County will bode well for counties that have not yet requested to be included in the extended media coverage program.