Note: This page covers information specific to Virginia. 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 Virginia 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 Virginia judiciary's website to find the locations, phone numbers, and websites for the state's Circuit Courts, Courts of Appeal, and Supreme Court. This page 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 Virginia state constitution also provides a right of access to court proceedings. Va. Const. art. I, § 12; see Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Commonwealth, 281 S.E.2d 915, 922 (Va. 1981).
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 Va. Code Ann. § 19.2-192.
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 Virginia because they are closed under state law. However, proceedings involving juveniles over the age of 14 who are charged with an offense that would be a felony if committed by an adult are presumptively open. Those proceedings may only be closed upon good cause and the court must state its reasons in writing. Va. Code Ann. § 16.1-302(C). The juvenile also has the right to a public trial if he so requests. Va. Code Ann. § 16.1-302(D).
In general, you should be able to attend civil proceedings, which are presumptively open to the public, in Virginia state courts. A civil proceeding may only be closed when the denial of access serves an important interest and that there is no less restrictive way to serve that interest. See Publicker Indus. v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059, 1070 (3d Cir. 1984).