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Public access to courtrooms

June 22, 2020

The First Amendment of the US Constitution recognizes the right of public and press to access court proceedings. The US Supreme Court has held that this right is implicit in the freedom of speech. This right plays an important function in our society by enhancing trial fairness.  This is only recognized for criminal trials, but states have recognized this right to civil proceedings as well by approving laws to give the same access.  Previous to the Pandemic, state courts have provided individuals and press full access to judicial proceedings. But, how is this right guaranteed during these times of a pandemic?

Almost every state court has been shut down, and only emergency related issues are being held personally in courthouses. Health agencies warn that to prevent the virus from spreading people must not gather in crowded places, to maintain social distancing.  How is this new way of doing business and keeping the least amount of people in courts is going to guarantee the right of access to public and press to judicial proceedings?

Some courts have resolved this by creating live streams and placing links to the streams to their websites; those proceedings are also virtual.  The Michigan Supreme Court recently launched a new webpage, called the Virtual Courtroom Directory to search virtual court hearings by county or by judge or hearing officer.  It allows everyone to watch all live proceedings via YouTube. The directory is in the form of a map of the state of Michigan and people can click on each county court to watch hearings from the comfort of their homes.

Some other examples of these new creative ways of ensuring public access are the state courts of Texas and Wisconsin. Both of them have live streams of their hearings as well.

How is your court doing to provide public and press access to judicial proceedings during these times? Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, and share your experiences!

For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.