Note: This page covers information specific to Washington. For general information concerning access to and use of court proceedings see the Access to Courts and Court Records section of this guide.
You have a right to attend most court proceedings in Washington state 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 Washington judiciary's website to find the locations, phone numbers, and websites for the state's courts. This pages focuses on your ability to access certain types of 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. The Washington state constitution also provides a right of access to court proceedings. Wash. Const. art. I, § 10.
However, your right to attend criminal trial proceedings is not absolute. A judge will close a criminal trial proceeding when: 1)the proponent of closure has shown a need for closure; 2) members of the public who are present at the time closure is requested are given an opportunity to object; 3) the closure is "both the least restrictive means available and effective in protecting the interests threatened"; 4) the judge has weighed competing interests and has considered all alternative methods; and, 5) the closure order is "no broader in its application or duration than necessary." Seattle Times Co. v. Ishikawa, 640 P.2d 716, 719-721 (Wash. 1982); 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 Wash. Rev. Code § 10.27.080.
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
In general, you will be able to attend juvenile proceedings involving criminal offenses. However, although such proceedings are presumptively open, a judge may close a particular hearing for good cause. Wash. Rev. Code § 13.40.140(6). See below for information about other proceedings in juvenile court.
You have a right to attend civil proceedings. Wash. Const. art. I, § 10; Cohen v. Everett City Council, 535 P.2d 801, 803 (Wash. 1975). However, this right is not absolute. As in criminal cases, the court looks at the five Ishikawa factors, discussed above, to try to balance the presumption of openness with other interests. See Dreiling v. Jain, 93 P.3d 861, 869-870 (Wash. 2004).
Other State Courts
Mental Illness Proceedings You will likely not be able to attend mental illness proceedings. They are closed to the public unless the person who is the subject of the hearing makes a written request for them to be open. Wash. Sup. Ct. Mental Proceedings R. 1.3.
Juvenile Court - Dependency Proceedings
You will probably be able to attend dependency and termination of parent-child relationship hearings. They are presumptively open unless the judge decides holding a closed proceeding is in the best interests of the child. Wash. Rev. Code § 13.34.115. Even if the hearing is closed, you may still be able to attend if the parent so requests unless the judge determines that it is not in the best interests of the child to open the proceedings to the general public.