Note: This page covers information specific to Pennsylvania. 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 Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized that the principle of openness is also derived from the common law and the state constitution. Pa. Const. art. 1, § 11; Commonwealth v. Fenstermaker, 530 A.2d 414, 417 (Pa. 1987).
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. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4549.
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 likely not be able to attend juvenile proceedings in Pennsylvania. However, if the juvenile is over 14 years old and accused of a felony, or is over 12 years old and accused of one of several serious felonies, the proceedings will be open to the public. If the attorney for the commonwealth and the juvenile agree to keep the hearing closed, it will not be open to the public even if those conditions are met. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6336.
In general, you should be able to attend civil proceedings, which are presumptively open to the public, in Pennsylvania state courts. A judge will only close a civil proceeding when: the denial of access serves an important interest, there is no less restrictive way to serve that interest, the material is of the kind that courts will protect, and public access will cause serious injury to the party seeing closure. See Storms v. O'Malley, 779 A.2d 548, 569 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2001); see generally Publicker Industries, Inc. v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059, 1071 (3d Cir. 1984).