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updated: 9/28/2012 8:34 AM

Editorial: Time is right to test cameras in courts

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

"Welcome to the 21st century" is an overused phrase these days. But sometimes it fits, and bringing cameras into Illinois trial courts is one such time. Given the fact that a majority of states have allowed cameras under varying rules for decades -- Iowa since 1979, for example -- you might say we are just entering the 20th century here at home. But given the advent of mobile technology, the importance of video and still photography in our daily consumption of news in the 21st century, this is welcome news for Illinois residents.

"It's a changing mindset," Steve Helle, a lawyer who teaches journalism and media law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Daily Herald legal affairs writer Josh Stockinger in a story earlier this month. "What kid doesn't grow up today being filmed 24/7 by their parents? And people whip out their cellphones without provocation to start recording."

We have Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride to thank, as his forward way of thinking has made it possible. And with his approval last week, DuPage County courts will be the first in the Chicago region to start what is billed as a "pilot project" that we hope morphs into a permanent and widespread everyday occurrence. Kane County could have cameras by the end of the year and Cook County is in the process of developing its plan. Lake and McHenry counties are moving at a slower pace -- we urge them to get on board as well.

With the DuPage approval, 23 Illinois counties now allow cameras and other recording devices in court. Success, however, depends on the implementation of a solid plan and the adherence to rules by judges, attorneys and the media. Feedback from the chief judges in each judicial circuit will be weighed.

Kilbride has told reporters that so far the plans are working without issue. He told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in August that the pilot program will continue as long as he is chief justice -- his term ends Oct. 26, 2013.

"I think the project is going to sell itself. I think judges, when they have an opportunity to see how it works and hear about it in other circuits, that brings them to a point where they want to take a closer look," Kilbride said in the Law Bulletin interview, adding that he's "always been open to the idea."

It's "another step to bring transparency and more accountability to the Illinois court system," he told Stockinger. From our point of view, that's key to moving forward, as is the potential to educate the public about its court system.

But to succeed, Kilbride and others familiar with the process say defendants' rights to a fair trial need to be protected. We couldn't agree more. We also urge court participants not to play to the cameras, though that is a concern.

"It's going to change a lot of things in the sense it's going to be a little more theatrical," Glen Ellyn defense attorney Brian Telander told Stockinger, adding that he believes cameras actually will make the courts more open and therefore more fair. We'll be watching and assessing those goals.

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