For most of the attorneys in the U.S. cameras have been in courtrooms for many years, and their presence is just part of life. Not so here in Illinois, one of just 14 states to prohibit courtroom cameras. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the Illinois Supreme Court announced January 24 that it had approved a pilot program to allow news cameras in trial courtrooms for the first time.
The experimental policy, effective immediately, authorizes coverage in circuit courts on a court-by-court basis. Circuit courts must apply for approval from the Illinois Supreme Court to take part in the program. Once the court is approved, media must request authorization for eligible cases.
There are a number of exceptions: No cameras in any cases involving juveniles, divorces, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression or trade secrets. Most cases involving sexual abuse will not have cameras unless a testifying victim consents. Trial judges will have the final say in all cases.
Although I’m sure the first broadcasts will be of high-profile criminal trials, such as the pending proceedings against accused wife-killer Drew Peterson, I’m equally sure we’ll eventually see coverage of cases involving personal injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death, and faulty medical devices. From my perspective, such coverage will be a positive development as it will help the public understand the entire judicial process involved in (for instance) a personal injury case. For too long most of what the public believes as fact has been the product of those who preach “tort reform,” and use myth, urban legend, and outright falsehood to make their case.
These “reformers” tend to use jury awards in injury cases as their proof that the system is broken, and in dire need of fixing. Of course, their idea of a fix is to cap awards, or otherwise limit a citizen’s access to a just settlement. When all that the public sees or hears is the amount of an award, and not the reasoning behind it, it’s easy for them to believe in the “runaway jury” myth.
How different that understanding will become when the public can view trials involving personal injury. The public doesn’t know much about the court system, and cameras will provide them with answers. The viewing audience becomes, in effect, another jury, and the plaintiffs become real people with real problems, not abstractions defined by a settlement.
Cameras in the courtroom won’t influence verdicts; cases will be won or lost on their merits. The difference is the Illinois public will for the first time be able to judge those merits right along with the jury. It cannot help but to be an asset to all of us trial lawyers to have an educated public, and we need to embrace this opportunity.
I am sure that there are those, shall we say, more flamboyant trial attorneys who may play to the camera, but in time even the most bombastic will forget they’re there. For myself, the first time I step in front of courtroom cameras I’m sure I’ll feel a bit self-conscious. A few more glances at a mirror to make sure the tie is straight and the hair is combed, but after that, as they say in Hollywood, I’m ready for my close-up.