Media Law Handbook

Court Access


3. When can a courtroom be closed to the public?
1. Access to the Judicial Process

2. The history and policy behind open courts

Our nation has a tradition of open judicial proceedings stemming from practices in England that pre-date the Norman Conquest.[2]   The fact that our courts are open to all who want to observe what transpires there is a source of great strength to our judicial system and to the citizens it serves.  For citizens to maintain confidence in their court system, it is essential that they be able to observe it in action.  Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, there is a “therapeutic” value to the community that flows from open proceedings:

Criminal acts, especially violent crimes, often provoke public concern, even outrage and hostility; this in turn generates a community urge to retaliate and a desire to have justice done . . . . Whether this is viewed as retribution or otherwise is irrelevant.  When the public is aware that the law is being enforced and the criminal justice system is functioning, an outlet is provided for these understandable reactions and emotions.  Proceedings held in secret would deny this outlet and frustrate the broad public interest; by contrast, public proceedings vindicate the concerns of the victims and the community in knowing that offenders are being brought to account for their criminal conduct by jurors fairly and openly selected.[3]

The Court’s observation also holds true in civil cases.

Even in today’s world of bloggers and “citizen-journalists”—where anyone with a cell phone can report breaking news—the traditional news media play an important role in this process by informing citizens of the workings of public institutions and by acting as surrogates for the public.[4]  News media organizations, whether print or electronic, focus every day on explaining the “who, what, when, where, how and why” to citizens who cannot attend trials and other court proceedings.  Perhaps most important, the news media—acting on behalf of the public—are a vital check on the judicial and executive branches of the government, providing accountability for how the laws are executed and enforced.


[2] For a good summary of the historical background of open judicial proceedings, see Richmond Newspapers, 448 U.S. at 564-69.

[3] Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of Riverside Cnty., 464 U.S. 501, 508-09 (1984).

[4] See Richmond Newspapers, 448 U.S. at 572-73.

3. When can a courtroom be closed to the public?
1. Access to the Judicial Process

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