Access for All
A person who wishes to observe a court in session may check the court calendar online or at the courthouse and watch a proceeding. Our Constitution and court tradition give citizens right of access to court proceedings. Citizens gain confidence in the courts by seeing judicial work in action, and learn first-hand how the judicial system works.
Unlike most state courts, the federal courts generally do not permit television or radio coverage of trial court proceedings. A video pilot program in 14 federal courts since July 2011, is helping evaluate the effect of cameras in the courtroom.
Court dockets and some case files are available on the Internet through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER), at www.pacer.gov. In addition, nearly every federal court maintains a website with information about court rules and procedures.
In a few situations the public may not have full access to court records and court proceedings. In a high-profile trial, for example, available space may limit the number of observers. Or, security reasons may limit access, such as the protection of a juvenile or a confidential informant. Finally, a judge may seal certain documents, such as confidential business records, certain law enforcement reports, and juvenile records.
Access for Teachers and Students
Teachers should contact their local U.S. District Clerk’s Office to set up a visit. Because the courts tend to be very busy, teachers should be prepared to allow several weeks of lead time when arranging a visit. The personnel in the clerk’s office can help teachers select an appropriate date for a class visit and can even find out what cases are on the docket if students wish to observe a court session. The clerk also will provide important logistical information, such as parking, for court visits. Some questions you may want to ask the clerk’s office:
- How many students may I bring to the court at one time?
- Which days and times are best to bring students to the court?
- What can my students do at the court?
- If we come to see a specific case and it settles, is there a back-up activity we might do?
- What web resources should we review before the visit?
- What are the rules of court decorum and dress the students must follow?
- Are there any judges who would be willing to speak to students? Prosecutors? Public defenders? Other court personnel? How can I set up a meeting with them?
Before Visiting a Court
The best time to visit a court is during a unit on the judicial system or the rights that the system protects. In this context, students can put their new knowledge to use by observing and interpreting court sessions and finding out more information from judges and other court personnel. In particular, it may be helpful for students to learn about the structure, functions, and procedures of the court before attending.
Follow up After Visit
Following up on a visit to the court is just as important as the preparation for the visit. Teachers should reinforce learning from the court experience through continued classroom activities on the judicial system. Whenever possible, they should refer to what students learned while at the courts to help them make connections between the court and their classroom experiences.
It is also important to follow up with a note of thanks, preferably signed by the students, addressed to those who helped make the experience meaningful.
Visiting the D.C. Federal Courthouse
The E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse in the District of Columbia, because of its location in the nation’s capital, handles many cases that shape the history of our country. There is an exhibit of some of these cases in the William Benson Bryant Annex of the D.C. courthouse. The next time you are in Washington, you are invited to visit the courthouse to learn about these cases from the past that have an impact on American life today. You also may want to observe a live trial. Courthouses are public buildings and courtrooms are open to the public.
Learn more about the history of the D.C. Circuit (link is external).
The following are some of the historic cases heard at the U.S. Courthouse in the District of Columbia.
The Nixon Tapes
Executive Privilege and the Fifth Amendment
The First Amendment
The Pentagon Papers
The Mayday Protestors
Criminal Law and Criminal Trials
The Assassination of President Lincoln
The Assassination of President Garfield
Due Process Rights
A Union Leader and the Law
Temporary Insanity Defense
The Attempt to Assassinate President Reagan
Courts in War Time
The President at War
Enforcing Equal Justice Guarantees
Equal Pay for Women
Women on Navy Ships