Federal Criminal Proceedings
As a member of the public, you have a right to attend criminal trials. See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 580(1980). This includes the preliminary hearings, the jury selection process, and sentencing and plea procedures.
However, like the general public, you may be denied access to the courtroom if a party seeking to close the hearing has an overriding interest that is likely to prejudiced and the closure is narrowly tailored to protect that interest. For example, the court may exclude you if the media's presence will deprive the defendant of her right to a fair trial because media coverage will influence the jury, or because a child is testifying, and the presence of the public would cause substantial psychological harm to the child or would result in the child’s inability to effectively communicate.
If the trial court closes the proceeding, the closure must be no broader than necessary to protect the interest of the party asserting the need for closure. The court must consider reasonable alternatives to closing the proceeding, and it must make findings adequate to support the closure. See generally Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Ct., 478 U.S. 1 (1986).
Grand Jury Proceedings
You will not be able to attend grand jury proceedings. These are proceedings in which the prosecutor presents evidence before a group of jurors who will determine if there is a sufficient basis to bring criminal charges against a person. Grand jury proceedings are held in secret and are not considered to be a part of the criminal trial process. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 6(d); see also Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 8-9 (1986).
However, you can speak with witnesses who appear before the grand jury, at least about their own testimony. See Butterworth v. Smith, 494 U.S. 624, 635-36 (1990). Note that witnesses are generally precluded from disclosing the testimony of other witnesses.
Other Proceedings and Conferences
In addition to grand jury proceedings, there are a few other court proceedings and conferences traditionally have been closed to the public. These include “side-bar” or “in-chambers” conferences between counsel and the judge, and plea-bargaining sessions between between the prosecutor and the defendant.
Juvenile Court Proceedings
You may be able to attend criminal juvenile proceedings in federal court. Federal juvenile proceedings, unlike those in many state courts, are not completely closed by law. The court weighs the interests of the juvenile and the public on a case-by-case basis. See United States v. A.D., 28 F.3d 1353, 1361-62 (3d Cir. 1994). However, you should be aware that closure is still the norm in these cases.
Federal Civil Courts
You also have a right to attend civil trials. See Publicker Industries, Inc. v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059, 1070 (3d Cir. 1984). Judges in civil courts may close the courtroom to the public only to serve specific interests that override the public's interest in access, and they only may do so if the closure is narrowly tailored to protect those interests. For example, you may be excluded from a courtroom if confidential commercial information, like a trade secret, would be revealed.
Additionally, some elements of the civil judicial system traditionally have been closed to the public. These include “side-bar” or “in-chambers” conferences between counsel and the judge, and settlement or other arbitration meetings between the parties. In addition, pretrial depositions are not public.
You should be able to attend most bankruptcy court proceedings. The judge may close the courtroom to the public only if a party seeking to close the proceeding has an overriding interest, such as the protection of trade secret information, that is likely to prejudiced and the closure is narrowly tailored to protect that interest.
Other Federal Courts
Court of International Trade
You should be able to attend trials on the merits. See Rule 77(b). Other proceedings may be conducted by the judge in his or her chambers; the public would normally be excluded from these proceedings.