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Lonna Saunders

Lonna Saunders

Posted: June 15, 2010 11:40 PM

No Room for Public at Guv Blago's Trial

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There's no room for the public to watch former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's trial. But there could be. Why isn't the much larger James Benton Parsons Memorial Courtroom being used as it was for the "Family Secrets" mob trial the summer of 2007, a trial where the Honorable James Zagel also presided? With the high degree of public interest in this case, why are there only 32 seats available to the public each day?

This is a trial of the highest state official in Illinois being held in the third largest city in the US. Surely, the powers-that-be at the Everett McKinley Dirksen building at Dearborn & Adams can find a larger courtroom somewhere in that building built with taxpayer dollars so that the public, who has an absolute right to know, can attend this trial.

If not, this makes the case for televising trials all the more compelling. Especially considering the trial is being held during summer vacation. Students, teachers, lifelong learners, the general public and those involved in government or those who desire to be, would learn a lot by seeing this trial.

In Illinois, we bemoan what is perceived as a constant drumbeat of corruption, yet what a powerful educational tool it could be to observe up close and personal the inner workings of our state's highest office. Perhaps to prevent future corruption. Or to serve as a deterrent. To learn what is legally permissible and what is not. Because the law is murky and it's not always easy to navigate the myriad of rules and regulations out there. In a trial, a bright line is drawn between what's right and what's wrong, making it much clearer to the average Joe or Josie.

Why is the public being shut out? To assume that because there are some 40 reporters inside the courtroom that the public will find out what's happening through them reminds me of the game we played as children, called "telephone." We sat in a circle and whispered something in someone's ear, who then passed it on around the circle. By the time, we got full circle and announced out loud what we had heard through others, it was totally different from the original message. The public has the right to see what's happening for themselves without a reporter's filter.

Those who make the trek to the Dirksen federal building and wait in line have a right to see the trial and not be turned away. For that is what's happening now. Thirty two seats a day for the public is not enough. Also, every day the rules have been changing as to what time to show up to get a ticket to get in, whether the ticket allows "in and out" privileges, etc., etc. Some days, you wonder if your odds are better at winning the state lottery. Too much discretion is permitted on the part of the gatekeepers who change the rules from day to day. By the way, there were no tickets given out at the summer mob trial three years ago. Why tickets here? The federal marshals are quick to tell you that you can't keep the ticket as a "souvenir" as they collect it from you. The word "souvenir" is the term they used.

A much larger courtroom sits down the hallway on the 25th floor, the courtroom that was used for the "Family Secrets" mob trial. It could be moved there if the powers-that-be really wanted to allow more members of the public to watch the proceedings.

Can it really be a fair trial when the public is shut out? The public has not only a right to know. The public has a right to be there.