Covering circuit court cases, as I did for a year early in my journalism career, provided hours of boring testimony, but also a steady stream of real and heart-tugging emotion.

Covering circuit court cases, as I did for a year early in my journalism career, provided hours of boring testimony, but also a steady stream of real and heart-tugging emotion.

I often found myself fascinated by the arguments of both sides, making it seem hard for a judge or jury to decide a case. I recall that virtually every time a criminal sentence was passed — from 30 days to 50 years — somebody would cry. It’s hard for a family member to hold back emotion when such life-changing words are heard.

It was also a time long before cameras were allowed or common in any courtrooms, as they are in many states now. And, as progress would have it, Illinois is slowly joining the places where audio and video recordings of trial courts — the level where people take the witness stand and sometimes heart-wrenching stuff gets said — thanks to a new policy announced in January by Illinois Chief Justice THOMAS KILBRIDE to allow pilot programs in courts across the state.

The court was unanimous in backing that decision, said  Justice RITA GARMAN of Danville, who has  been a judge since the 1970s and on the Supreme Court since 2001. She says her view of cameras in trial courts has changed over the years.

 “When I was a trial judge many years ago, I was very opposed to it,” Garman told me recently at the Supreme Court building in Springfield. “I was very fearful of grandstanding, that people would behave in a manner that was not appropriate.”

She also noted a traditional concern is that news organizations would broadcast just “sound bites” that present a “skewed view of the proceedings.”

“That hasn’t been a problem in other places,” she said.

She likes restrictions included in the Illinois rules, such as not allowing pictures of jurors or child victims. And technology has changed as well.

“Today’s cameras can be so unobtrusive that parties don’t even realize that they’re there,” Garman said.

“I think the positive is that it adds to transparency in the court system. Most people, frankly, never have the chance or the obligation to come to court, other than maybe as a juror or (with) a traffic ticket. And I think it’s an opportunity to see how our courts work, and that there are hardworking people involved in these proceedings, and that there are fair trials. … So I think it can be a wonderful educational experience.”

Circuits have to ask the state’s high court to participate in a pilot, and so far, the 7th Judicial Circuit, with six counties including Sangamon, hasn’t leapt forward.

“We have made a decision as of right now not to participate in the initial pilot program,” said 7th Circuit Chief Judge RICHARD MITCHELL, based in Morgan County. He said some of the courthouses in the circuit — which also includes Scott, Greene, Jersey and Macoupin counties — are small and are “not really set up to do much in the way of coverage.” He’d like to see problems, such as how to deal with the restrictions, worked out in pilot areas first.

Still, Mitchell said, “I think probably within a year or two, they’ll be allowable in all the courts.”

JOSEPH TYBOR, director of communications for the Supreme Court, said so far, 13 counties in five circuits are in approved pilot programs. They include the counties of Rock Island, Mercer, Henry, Whiteside, Jo Daviess, Stephenson, Carroll, Ogle, Lee, Kankakee, Madison, Boone and Winnebago. He noted that in each trial covered, local media outlets have to agree to work together, and through a coordinator they supply, to work out logistics. He also said the high court deferred a request from Cook County, given its massive size, with hundreds of judges and several court buildings.

In a recent fraud case in Henry County, Tybor said, the In Session network had two cameras — one at the front of the room and operated by remote control — in the courtroom. Local TV stations used the video for their reports.

Cameras have also been approved, he said, for a murder trial scheduled for June of accused multiple-murderer NICHOLAS SHELEY, who has already been convicted of killing a Galesburg man in a separate case last year.

Tybor said early indications are that pilot programs are working well, despite some unexpected problems such as distracting noise from some still cameras.

Though Illinois has allowed cameras at appellate and Supreme Court hearings since 1983, it’s been a long road to get to the first steps taken by Kilbride and the current court in January. Way back in 1995, a fighter for more media access to courts, the late BILL MILLER — who went from Springfield and Statehouse radio reporter to years of teaching master’s degree students in public affairs reporting at what is now the University of Illinois Springfield — lamented that the O.J. SIMPSON trial, televised from California, probably weakened the case for cameras in Illinois.

He told the Daily Herald at the time it was “unfortunate” because the lengthy case was “such an aberration compared to normal, run-of-the-mill court cases.”

Well, perhaps enhanced access, to let the public see more of how their court system works, is at hand in the foreseeable future.

Garman, 68, elected as a Republican, is on the ballot this November seeking retention on the high court for another 10 years in the 30-county 4th Judicial District, which includes Sangamon County. Sitting judges don’t face opponents when their terms are up, but must get a 60 percent affirmative vote for retention from those voting on that question to remain in office.

Township supervisor retires
A former Sangamon County Board member, DENNIS WIELAND, recently retired from his post as Clear Lake Township supervisor.

Wieland wrote a letter saying he was ready to “live a less stressful life” and have more time with his family, said JIM MOORE, the township clerk.

The township trustees were joined by a couple members of the Sangamon County Board, including SARAH MUSGRAVE, R-District 9, when three candidates were interviewed to be the next supervisor, Trustee BOB VanDerWal said.

Musgrave said the candidates include Moore, TOM RUNYON and TOM RADER.

Rader is on the Riverton Area Fire Protection District, served eight years as a Riverton village trustee and lost a race for village president in 2009 to BOB TODD. He said he’s also been on the zoning board, and would like the “extra experience on another branch of government” that being township supervisor would bring as he is “possibly looking at making a return next year to run for mayor again.”

OK, there is a lot of government in Sangamon County and Illinois. Clear Lake is one of 26 townships in the county. The next supervisor is expected to be named at a June 5 meeting, VanDerWal said.

Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or follow him via twitter.com/bschoenburg. His email address is
bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.