Note: This page covers information specific to North Carolina. 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 North Carolina 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 North Carolina 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.
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. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-623.
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 North Carolina are presumptively open. However, a judge may exclude you from a hearing or part of a hearing if there is good cause to close it. The judge will consider the nature of the allegations against the juvenile, the age and maturity of the juvenile, the benefit to the juvenile of confidentiality, the benefit to the public of an open hearing, and the extent to which the confidentiality of the juvenile's file will be compromised by an open hearing. Note that the hearing will remain open if the juvenile so requests. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-2402.
You have a qualified constitutional right to attend civil court proceedings under the North Carolina State Constitution. N.C. Const. art. I, § 18. Your right of access may be limited when there is a compelling countervailing public interest and closure of the court proceedings or sealing of documents is required to protect such countervailing public interest. The court must consider alternatives before determining that closure is necessary. Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Servs. Corp., 515 S.E.2d 675, 693 (N.C. 1999).