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