Note: This page covers information specific to California. For general information concerning access to and use of court records see the Access to Courts and Court Records section of this guide.
You have a right to inspect and copy most records and documents filed in California state courts. However, your right of access is not absolute, and a court may seal records under certain circumstances. If you are interested in obtaining court records, you should go to the courthouse where the case is taking place and request the records in writing from the clerk of the court (there will usually be a request form). See the Courts page on the California Courts website for locations, phone numbers, and websites for the California Superior Courts, Courts of Appeal, and Supreme Court. Alternatively, you may be able to access court records online. For more information, please consult the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's state-by-state guide to access to court records and proceedings.
As a general matter, you may access docket information, the pleadings and motions of the parties to a lawsuit, decisions and orders of the court, evidence introduced in court by either side, and transcripts of hearings. Other types of records that you can access include executed search and arrest warrants, probation officer reports, written victim statements, settlement agreements filed in court, and grand jury testimony resulting in an indictment, once that indictment has been handed down.
Certain categories of records are generally not open to the public:
- most juvenile court records;
- mental evaluation records;
- discovery records not filed in court or introduced into evidence;
- adoption records;
- trade secret information; and
- grand jury transcripts that do not result in an indictment.
Beyond that, a court may seal a record or records in a criminal case if it determines that disclosure would threaten the defendant's right to a fair trial. In a civil case, a court may seal documents if it determines that one or both of the parties have a legitimate interest in keeping the documents confidential and that interest outweighs the public interest in accessing the documents. Parties to a civil lawsuit may agree or "stipulate" to the sealing of documents, but this does not remove the court's obligation to determine whether the parties' interest in confidentiality overrides the public interest.
A court must issue an order to seal documents. If you are denied access to court records, ask the clerk for the order sealing the documents. If such an order exists, you may consider moving to intervene in the case to challenge the court's decision. The First Amendment Project has a great script to follow when parties to a lawsuit stipulate to seal documents or you are denied access to court records. If you wish to challenge an order sealing court records, you should get legal assistance to determine how best to proceed.
For additional information on access to court records in California, see the First Amendment Project's Guide to Access to Courts and Court Records in California.