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

The American public relies on the media, in all its forms, for education about important developments in the law and the courts. Journalists, regardless of their subject-matter expertise, report on and editorialize daily about legal and court matters – criminal and civil trials and investigations of high-profile interest or notoriety, commercial litigation, contract and labor disputes, divorces, probate matters, and constitutional matters - in the print media, television, radio and the internet.

Reporting on the local and federal courts in the District of Columbia presents a unique challenge to journalists. The District’s local justice system is unlike any other jurisdiction in the country. For example, judges in the District of Columbia Courts, who have equivalent authority to other state-level judges, are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. On the federal level, the District of Columbia is home to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and other specialized federal courts. As with all court systems, there are varying (and evolving) rules and practices governing access to courtroom proceedings and documents.

The Council for Court Excellence’s Journalists’ Handbook to the Courts in the District of Columbia is designed to assist journalists in reporting knowledgably and accurately about the local and federal courts in the District of Columbia. The Handbook has been organized and written for journalists who possess a basic understanding of court process and terminology, though a glossary of terms is provided beginning at page 68 of the Handbook.

A more detailed description of local and federal court processes can be found in the Community Guide to the Courts, published by the Council for Court Excellence and available for free on the internet at or by calling the Council’s offices at 202-785-5917.

This guide is not intended to constitute legal advice. If issues requiring legal assistance or advice arise, please contact your editors, producers, or counsel. This is particularly important when reporting on matters that are sensitive, confidential, classified, sealed or otherwise not public information, such as grand jury or juvenile proceedings. This guide refers frequently to legal papers that can be filed – e.g., motions to intervene seeking to open closed court proceedings, motions to unseal sealed court papers, motions to challenge gag orders. Such legal actions are best considered and prepared with the assistance of counsel.

Laura R. Handman
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP

Eric N. Lieberman
The Washington Post


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