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Cameras to Record Federal Civil Trials in Chicago

Fellow Chicago injury lawyers and all practitioners who are involved in federal cases in our area will be interested to learn that starting this year cameras will be used in a select few courtrooms at the Dirksen Federal Building. While cameras have been used in some state trials and appellate courtrooms nationwide (never in Illinois), there has been surprisingly little use of the technology at the trial level or in most federal courts.

According to the terms of an approval reached by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the cameras will be placed in fourteen different districts across the country, with Chicago being just one. In all cases there will be three cameras in each room. One will point to the judge’s bench, another will focus on the podium where the advocate speaks, and the third will fix on the witness box. Obviously, because of the clear security, comfort, and potential distorting influence, the jury will never be seen in the tapes. In addition, the federal court judge can chose not to have his or her face shown on the camera.

In other districts participating in the pilot project, the video stream will be beamed live over the Internet for any enterprising member of the public to view. However, that is not the case here. Instead, the tapes will be saved to a local server. It is only later that they will then be uploaded to the Northern District’s website for public viewing. In the interim a judge can order certain parts of the tape edited before reaching the public. It is not exactly clear what sorts of segments of a trial a judge may deem inappropriate for public viewing.

Right now the cameras will only record civil cases. A federal clerk familiar with the matter noted that criminal cases might also be included down the road, depending on how this test run works out.

In many ways it is encouraging that one of our federal Chicago nursing home abuse cases may be viewed by the general public. Any Illinois injury lawyer has likely experienced disconnect between public understanding of the workings of a trial and the reality. Unfortunately, many members of the community only learn about cases via newspaper headlines that rattle off big verdicts. In this way the public often gets the sense the justice system is simply a “get rich quick” scheme and residents often assume that the nursing home did nothing wrong. By opening up an easy platform for members of the public to actually hear the same information in the same format as the jury, many community members may get a better appreciation for what exactly went on and how a decision was reached.

As with most things, it is hard to understand how bad outcomes could come from sharing open and honest information with the public about these processes. The State-Journal Register championed use of cameras in the courtroom in an editorial last month, mostly based on the trial of Governor Rod Blagojevich. The editorial noted that community members throughout the state have a clear interest in following these criminal trials and other high profile personal injury lawsuits. Yet, only a select few are ever capable of actually visiting the courthouse and watching. Cameras will hopefully change that.

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