To protect the civil liberties of people entering the judicial system, the Will County Courthouse amended its electronics policy in 2012 by adding cell phones to the list of items banned.
Now its in fifth year of implementation, the local court rule provides a means for which some praise its ability to maintain order in the courthouse, while others scrutinize the merits of the ban.
Will County Courthouse Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt said the grounds for amending the electronics policy are clear.
“We made it a little bit stricter because we’re taking into account cell phone cameras,” he said. “When I first took the bench, phones didn’t have cameras. We had no policy for cellphone cameras… Once cell phones started to contain cameras, we had to account for them. (Visitors) are not allowed the ability to take picture, video or audio.”
Schoenstedt has served as chief judge at the Will County Courthouse for more than four years. He said the policy, as is, amended last is sufficient at maintaining order in the courts.
“No need to change what we think is working for us,” Schoenstedt said.
Courthouse policies can be altered in two ways by amending local rules that are public, the 16 circuit court judges participate in a discussion to change policy and the other way is by entry of administrative order.
“We’re constantly trying to weight interests of the public and the press here in the courthouse,” he said. “The other side of that is we need to maintain an environment that ensures and supports a fair and impartial trail. Where do cameras, video and audio fit into this? It’s key that jurors to the extent possible they remain anonymous—whether the case is civil or criminal. Jurors provide a very important service. They come in, take time from their lives to sit on a case, listen to the evidence and decide that case. (Jurors) have a right and an expectation that when they leave the courthouse, they leave it.”
That’s a line the courthouse is not willing to cross, Schoenstedt said.
“The judges do not want people taking pictures of jurors, posting them on Facebook, YouTube or whatever it may be,” he said. “For that very reason and conversely, we don’t want jurors to not want to serve if they hear their picture, video or audio—what they say—is put out there through social media. That would have a chilling effect on jurors’ willingness to serve.”
Schoenstedt, noting that members of the public may want to keep their cell phones to ensure access to a fair trial, said the use of electronics compromises that.
Schoenstedt said if courthouses allow devices to capture audio, video or picture, all of a sudden a judge could have 15 different viewpoints and pieces of evidence to review.
“Our interests in not allowing phones outweigh the public’s interest in having these cell phones,” he said.
Accountability in the courthouse
Certified court reporters are on hand to record everything that’s said in open court and during session for felony and juvenile cases. The records produced by these employees are intended to provide the public with a sense of accountability within the judicial system.
Schoenstedt refuted concerns for the courthouse’s decision to employ courthouse reporters in the event that public records were to be damaged.
“I’ve never had a situation where it would be lost or damaged,” he said. “I find that not to be sufficient by any stretch.”
Schoenstedt said court reporters, like many other occupations, undergo training. To add, these positions are state-regulated, state-employed and supplied with everything necessary as required by the Supreme Court and State of Illinois, he said.
Schoenstedt said the courthouse has added court reporters in the last few years to accommodate the population growth and the addition of new judges.
To date, there are roughly 25 court reporters at the Will County Courthouse.
“I want the public to understand this policy provides the public fair and impartial trials for everybody,” Schoenstedt said.