Why Aren't Trials Televised in Illinois?

Why Aren't Trials Televised in Illinois?
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Last updated: March 2008

The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette. 

Question

Why aren’t trials in Illinois televised? If we can see trials from other states, why not in Illinois, too?

Answer

The simple answer is that Illinois prohibits cameras in the courtroom, at least for trials. The fact that other states do it has not yet persuaded Illinois judges to permit televised trials.

Illinois Supreme Court Rule 63(A)(7) says that "the taking of photographs in the courtroom during sessions of the court or recesses between proceedings, and the broadcasting or televising of court proceedings is permitted only to the extent authorized by order of the supreme court."

Lest that get anyone’s hopes up, the Supreme Court has issued an order that only permits Appellate or Supreme Court cases to be photographed, televised, or broadcast. And then, by only one video or movie camera, one still camera and one audio system, each operated by only one person. Only certain types of cameras are allowed (and most of the permitted still cameras would be considered antiques).

These restrictions went into effect in 1984, and have not really opened the floodgates to televised coverage of Appellate or Supreme Court proceedings. If anything, the public may have learned from this limited coverage that Appellate Court proceedings lack the excitement of an O.J. Simpson trial. Even with different camera angles, Appellate Court arguments would not attract big audiences.

Illinois is one of only 12 states that prohibit all trial court proceedings from being televised. Twenty-five states allow trials to be televised with minor restrictions, and 8 others make televised trials more difficult, but not impossible.

When the Illinois Supreme Court opened the door ever-so-slightly to cameras in the courtroom, its main concern was the disruption from obtrusive and noisy cameras. Technological improvements have pretty much solved that problem, but legitimate concerns remain about how cameras affect the dignity and decorum of the courtroom.

The U.S. Supreme Court prohibits all cameras in its courtroom, and no live audio coverage. The best they will do is the same-day release of recordings of oral arguments. To sample the oral arguments, click on the link below:

Oyez - U.S. Supreme Court Media

Some lower Federal courts experimented with cameras between 1991 and 1994, but have since banned them.

While the Supreme Court has said that "what transpires in the court room is public property," it has also said that a media circus can disrupt a trial. For example, they overturned Billy Sol Estes’ fraud conviction because cameras in the courtroom deprived him of a fair trial.

Before that 1965 decision, cameras in the courtroom were not unusual—even in Illinois. The Loeb-Leopold trial in 1924, for example, was well photographed. Other famous trials with in-court photography were the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. 

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