The phrase "walk right in and sit right down" pretty much covers the process of how to attend a trial or hearing in court. Almost all court proceedings in the United States are open to the public. The trial may be a bench trial, where there is no jury and the judge decides the facts and how to apply the law, or it may be a jury trial. You can even view hearings on motions, which may or may not relate to how the case ultimately comes out. While you may be kept out of celebrity trials to reduce the risk of disruption, you should be able to watch and observe the vast majority of court proceedings that strike your fancy.
Parties, Attorneys and Witnesses May Attend
A court trial can be an incredible spectacle or an awful bore. If you are one of the parties involved, you are not likely to yawn your way through it, since your rights or responsibilities are being decided. You have an absolute right to be present.
If you are an attorney for one of the parties, you definitely have a right to attend a court trial. It is your job to attend the trial, present your client's arguments and argue against the opposing party's positions. Witnesses for a party are also permitted in a court trial, although sometimes they cannot attend the trial before it is their turn to present evidence. When the court makes this order, it is to be sure that a witness doesn't alter a story in order to make it fit better with someone else's testimony.
If you are a party, ask your attorney or, if you don't have an attorney, the court clerk to show you the courtroom where the court trial will be heard. If you are an attorney, the court notifies you of the courtroom. If you are the witness for a party, ask the party or the party's attorney where the court trial will be held.
Members of the Public May Attend Unless Prohibited by Court Order
We know the attorneys, parties and witnesses can attend; but can anyone go to a court trial? You might want to attend a court trial for any of a variety of reasons. Perhaps you know one of the parties or attorneys. Maybe the subject of a particular case fascinates you, or you are planning on attending law school or writing a novel with a courtroom scene. Whatever the reason, it's likely you can get your wish. Most court proceedings are open to the public, including federal and state civil and criminal trials and bankruptcy trials. This is just as true for bench trials as for jury trials, although bench trials can be less dramatic (and thus less interesting) because the attorneys aren't "putting on a show" for the jury. But if you want to attend, just walk in and take a seat in one of the rows. The court officials won't even ask you why you are attending or whether you have an interest in the outcome.
Closed Court Trials: No Members of the Public
In a high profile or celebrity court trial, there may be more people who want to watch than there are seats. Generally, some spots are reserved for family and some for the press, so, if you are neither, you may find yourself excluded. In other cases, a judge may close the courtroom to the public for matters of security, such as to allow a secret informant to testify. If one of the parties has an overriding interest in privacy, the court may close the courtroom to the public as long as the closure is narrowly tailored to protect that interest. For example, the court may exclude the public if a child is testifying about abuse or violence.
Can anyone sit in a courtroom? Most court trials are open to the public, so even if you aren't a party or a witness, you can walk right in and sit right down unless the judge orders otherwise. Parties, their attorneys and witnesses always have the right to attend a court trial.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.