Note: This page covers information specific to the District of Columbia. 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 D.C. 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 judiciary's website to find the locations, phone numbers, and websites for the District's courts. This pages focuses on your ability to access certain types of proceedings.
You have the same First Amendment right to attend all stages of criminal trials as you do in federal court. See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 580(1980); see also Kleinbart v. United States, 388 A.2d 878 (D.C. 1978). This includes the preliminary hearing and the jury selection process.
As in federal court, 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 District of Columbia Superior Court Rules for Criminal Procedure 6(d)(1).
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
Juvenile proceedings in the District of Columbia are closed. D.C. Code § 16-2316(e). You may be able to attend if the judge finds that there is a "reasonable assurance that the admission of the press will be consistent with the protection of a juvenile respondent's anonymity." In re J.D.C., 594 A.2d 70, 75 (D.C. 1991). Thus, your attendance will be contingent on your agreement not to divulge information identifying the child or members of the child's family involved in the proceedings. D.C. Code § 16-2316(e)(3).
D.C. courts have not directly taken a position on the openness of civil proceedings, but seem to have assumed there is a presumptive First Amendment right of access. See Mokhiber v. Davis, 537 A.2d 1100, 1110 (D.C. 1988).
Other State Courts
You will be excluded from Family Court proceedings if either party requests the hearing be closed to the general public. The judge may also close the proceedings on her own initiative. D.C. Code § 16-2344.