Note: This page covers information specific to California. 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 California state courts. However, your right of access is not absolute, and a court can restrict your access under certain circumstances. 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. 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). 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
As in federal court, 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. Attempting to listen to or observe the proceedings of a grand jury is a misdemeanor. Cal. Penal Code 891.
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
Your access to California juvenile proceedings is strictly limited. You will not be admitted to a juvenile court hearing unless either the minor and her parent/guardian requests that the hearing be public or the minor is accused of one of a listed group of serious felonies, such as murder, arson, or rape. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code 676a.
Even if the minor and her parent consent or the minor is accused of one of those serious crimes, you will still be excluded if the minor is accused of one of several sexual assault-like crimes and the victim requests the hearing be closed, or if the victim was under 16 years old at the time of the offense. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code 676b.
In general, you can attend civil trial proceedings because the general public has a First Amendment right of access to civil trials. See NBC Subsidiary, Inc. v. Superior Court, 20 Cal. 4th 1178 (1999) (type in citation to retrieve opinion).
Judges may decide to close civil trials under certain conditions. If a judge contemplates closing the trial proceeding, she must provide notice to the public of the anticipated closure and hold a hearing to hear any arguments about the proposed closure. The judge can close the trial proceeding if she expressly finds after the hearing that (i) there exists an overriding interest supporting closure and/or sealing; (ii) there is a substantial probability that the interest will be prejudiced absent closure and/or sealing; (iii) the proposed closure and/or sealing is narrowly tailored to serve the overriding interest; and (iv) there is no less restrictive means of achieving the overriding interest. Id., at 1181-1182.
Additionally, you may not be able to access portions of the trial proceeding. You will not have access to depositions, the “side-bar” or “in-chambers” conferences between counsel and the judge, or settlement or other arbitration meetings between the parties. You will also likely not be able to attend mental competency hearings, unless one of the parties involved asks that the hearing be open. See Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code. 5118.
Other State Courts
You may be able to attend most court proceedings, however note that a judge may close a trial when she "considers it necessary in the interests of justice and the persons involved." Cal. Family Code 214.