Closed Court: When Court Proceedings Are Deemed Worthy of Privacy

Thanks to multiple traditions in American jurisprudence, both civil and criminal trials are open to the public. This means that almost anyone has the right to…

  • Be a spectator during court proceedings
  • Access trial overviews and verdicts
  • Obtain electronic recordings or transcripts of the proceedings

However, as with most legal rights, this one isn’t necessarily absolute. There are a few circumstance that require or allow a court to restrict public information.


Exceptions and Impediments to the Rule of Public Access

Although the public has the right to view and research court proceedings to a point, certain trial information can be considered too important or too private to be revealed. In these situations, a special hearing may be held to determine whether the trial as a whole or parts of the trial need to be sealed.

Among the areas where exceptions are made, these are the most common:

  • National security. In certain situations, a case may require that classified information is presented to the court. Classified information, or information an intelligence agency has deemed vital national security, could have disastrous effects if disclosed to the wrong person. As a workaround to satisfy public interest as well as protect national security, the Executive Branch decides the level of public access such cases are allowed, with oversight by the judicial system. The public may be given limited access to the particulars of the classified information, with critical parts of the information blacked out from the court records.
  • Grand jury proceedings. Grand jury proceedings are completely confidential. However, in cases where previous grand jury testimonies are required as evidence, the court can make an exception and have the testimonies (or parts of the testimonies) released and made accessible to the court.
  • Juveniles. Unless tried as an adult, a juvenile defendant’s identity is protected against public access in criminal cases. Many courts decide to seal the entire court record to preserve a juvenile’s anonymity. However, in some cases, identity can be protected while still allowing pubic access by redacting the juvenile’s name or by having the court reporter use initials in the record rather than full names. Similar methods are used to protect anonymity if a juvenile is appearing as a witness in a sensitive civil or criminal matter.

If no other means exists that would potentially inhibit the defendant’s right to a fair trial, the court will rule that publicity will be allowed. In cases where impartiality is required, and public viewing could affect the case, the court will consider the following modifications:

  • Change of venue.
  • Sequestration of the jury
  • Extensive questioning of potential jurors
  • Postponement of the trial
  • Gag orders on trial participants

Would You Like to Learn More?

For more information on court record processing, transcript availability, and information access feel free to browse our extensive library of blog articles. You are encouraged to learn all you need to know about court reporting, transcriptions, depositions, and more.

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