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.
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.