Covering Courts in DC Structure: DC Courts Structure: Federal Courts Tips for Reporting Contact Info Glossary Searchable PDF


Journalists who cover courts in the District of Columbia serve as the eyes and ears of the public. What happens in these courts is the public’s business. In criminal cases, liberty interests are at stake; and in civil and bankruptcy cases, property rights are at issue. The public also has an interest in knowing about the performance of the court systems and other government agencies as a whole.

The vast majority of courtroom proceedings and court documents are open to the press and public. On a daily basis, journalists observe court proceedings and review court records to help keep our society current and informed on newsworthy events concerning particular business before the courts (e.g., a high-profile criminal trial, a high stakes civil case, or a case involving the performance of a government agency). Journalists can also use information available at the courthouse to find and check important historical information about people who are involved in newsworthy events, such as criminal suspects, political candidates, nominees, and appointees as well as individuals involved in tragic episodes such as accidents.

Reporters can also use access to courts to prepare in-depth stories that shed light on the functioning of the courts themselves, and on other larger public issues. Broad access to proceedings and the availability of court records enables reporters to expand understanding about news events, identify demographic and sociological events and trends, and to monitor the workings of courts and other government agencies. Often these stories look at issues of public safety, and at the effectiveness and fairness of the criminal justice system — subjects of obvious importance to the public.

The Handbook is designed to assist you in covering the courts accurately, fairly, comprehensively, and with respect for the processes and the participants. The Handbook assumes you have a basic understanding of the U.S. and D.C. court systems. If not, please see the Community Guide to the Courts, published by the Council for Court Excellence, for a more detailed description of the court system and legal process. The Community Guide is available online.

Following each section in this chapter are some commonly asked questions by journalists. When the policies and practices of the two local trial courts (federal District Court, D.C. Superior Court) differ, the answer will indicate that. When the answer is generally applicable to both courts, no distinction will be made.


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