Access to Massachusetts Court Proceedings

Note: This page covers information specific to Massachusetts. For general information concerning access to and use of court proceedings see the Access to Courts and Court Records section of this guide.

For additional information about engaging in journalism in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, please see our printable PDF guide Newsgathering in Massachusetts, co-produced with the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic.

You have a right to attend most court proceedings in Massachusetts courts. However, your right of access is not absolute, and a court can restrict your access under certain circumstances. If you are interested in attending a court proceeding, visit the Massachusetts judiciary's website to find the locations, phone numbers, and websites for the state's courts. Additionally, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has published a useful set of Guidelines on the Public's Right of Access to Judicial Proceedings and Records. This pages focuses on your ability to access certain types of proceedings.

Criminal Proceedings

Trial Proceedings

You have a First Amendment right to attend criminal trials. Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 580(1980) This includes the preliminary hearing and the jury selection process.

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.

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. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 277, § 5.

Other Proceedings and Conferences You will not be able to access a few other hearings that have traditionally been closed to the public. These include “side-bar” or “in-chambers” conferences between the lawyers and the judge, and plea-bargaining sessions between the prosecutor and the defendant.

Juvenile Court Proceedings You will not be able to attend most juvenile proceedings in Massachusetts. Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 119, § 65. However, you may be able to attend the proceedings if the Commonwealth proceeds by indictment, which occurs if:

  • the juvenile is alleged to have committed an offense which would be punishable by imprisonment in state prison if he were an adult and he has previously been committed to the Department of Youth Services, or
  • the offense involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm.

Mass. Gen. Laws 119, § 54. For example, if a juvenile is charged with murder, you will likely be able to attend.

Civil Proceedings

You have a common law right of access to civil trials. See Boston Herald v. Superior Court Dep't of the Trial Court, 658 N.E.2d 152, 155 n.7 (Mass. 1995). This right is not absolute but a judge must make every effort to arrive at a reasonable alternative to closure.

Other State Courts

Child Welfare Proceedings

These proceedings, such as whether to take a child into the custody of the commonwealth, are closed to the general public. Mass Gen. Laws ch. 119, § 38.


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