Rita B. Garman
Rita B. Garman

SPRINGFIELD — The state’s high court on Monday put an extra stamp of approval on its four-year-old news camera policy.

Chief Justice Rita B. Garman announced the state rule allowing local courts to let cameras cover certain trials will become “permanent” moving forward.

The idea was technically still being administered on an experimental basis, but the Illinois Supreme Court said this week it has worked well enough thus far to be more of the rule rather than the exception.

“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 in a statement on Monday.

“We are pleased with the success of the pilot project and with the great cooperation we have received from the media. It is time to make (extended media coverage) more widely available.”

The rules give chief judges the authority to deny extended coverage by photojournalists in any case, and it allows trial judges to limit or deny coverage in certain aspects of a trial. Those denials are not subject to appeal.

Courts in 15 of the state’s 24 judicial circuits, and more than 40 counties, have been approved to allow extended coverage of trials so far. The last county to be approved for cameras was Cook County in December 2014, when the Leighton Criminal Building was approved for audio and video recordings.

Other counties are still waiting for their applications to be approved. The 7th Judicial Circuit in central Illinois, which includes Springfield, applied for cameras last July. But the circuit is still crafting local rules that need to be approved by the high court.

"I did talk with two [Supreme Court administration] people this afternoon that are assisting us and they seem to think it wouldn’t take much longer," said 7th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Kenneth R. Deihl. 

The high court news release this week said there have been about 450 total applications from media members since the policy was introduced back in 2012.

While the local courts were already required to apply for permission and send in quarterly reports on their experiences with cameras, the rule change this week includes new forms that standardize the application and reporting process.

The reports ask chief judges to detail the types of cases in which they were asked to allow cameras, how many requests they received during the quarter, how many were approved and denied and how many are still pending.

Both forms are available on the Illinois Supreme Court’s website and can be submitted electronically.

Michael J. Tardy, director of the high court’s administrative arm, said while the forms are confidential now, he said he didn’t think there would be any objection to making at least some of the information public in the near future.

He added the court kept tabs on how cameras are working in five other states — Iowa, Missouri, Florida, Kansas and Connecticut — and said they each went from pilot programs to permanent camera policies in between three and five years.

But “it wasn’t a bright-line test of four years or three years,” Tardy said. “It simply was performance based.” And the program performed well enough for the court to decide “it’s time to be able to make this available permanently. We have our lessons learned.”

Illinois has allowed cameras in its Supreme and appellate courts since 1983. But the camera policy for trial courts began under Justice Thomas L. Kilbride during his term as chief and was overseen in-part by former spokesman Joseph R. Tybor, who died of pancreatic cancer in late 2015.

Garman, who began as chief justice in October 2013, stated at the beginning of her tenure she wanted to focus on modernizing the state’s judiciary.

The move to cement the camera policy follows a handful of changes in that vein, including live Web broadcasts of Supreme Court oral arguments and more leeway on e-mail service of legal documents.