Courthouse Contacts – Journalist’s Guide
You will meet a diverse cast of courthouse players. Some can help you understand court procedures and accurately report on cases.
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Only a few federal courts have public information officers (PIOs) who interact with the news media on a daily basis. Absent a PIO, media interested in district court cases should contact the clerk of court or division manager (or district executive in those courts that have such a position). These employees either can help directly can refer reporters to the court’s designated media contact.
While these court employees will assist media regarding access and process, they are not a substitute for covering a hearing. Ethical restrictions and the sheer quantity of cases prevent court staff from giving reporters substantive updates about courtroom proceedings.
In cases before a court of appeals, media should start with the circuit executive or clerk of court. Bankruptcy case inquiries should be directed to the bankruptcy court clerk.
Journalists are likely to encounter four categories of federal judges. District court judges, who oversee most federal trials, and court of appeals judges, who hear appellate cases in panels, are appointed for life under Article III of the Constitution. They often are referred to as “Article III judges.” Magistrate judges handle many district court pretrial proceedings, while bankruptcy judges exclusively handle bankruptcy cases. Magistrate and bankruptcy judges have fixed terms but may be reappointed. See Judges and Judicial Administration.
Under the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, all judges must “avoid public comment on the merits of pending or impending actions” in cases before them or on appeal. Don’t call judges, or their judicial assistants and law clerks, with questions about a case.
Many judges participate in bar association programs and other public events, and you may introduce yourself in such settings. Some judges also will talk informally to journalists about non-case-related matters. If you are new to covering a federal court, it is appropriate to call a judge’s chambers and ask whether you can drop by to introduce yourself. Profiles of newly appointed judges, new chief judges, and stories about courthouse projects and innovations are not uncommon. Judges may talk with reporters for these types of stories, but they are not obligated to do so. Some federal judges also may discuss procedural aspects of a case, while others decline to be interviewed by journalists on virtually any topic. Biographical information on many judges can be found on a court’s website. Find brief biographies of every Article III judge.
To learn more about federal judges, see Judges and Judicial Administration.
The clerk of court’s office (or “clerk’s office”) performs a wide range of administrative duties, including management of the flow of cases. As the court’s official custodian of the record, the clerk can assist members of the public and media in accessing court records. The clerk also is responsible for providing courtroom deputy clerks, who support judges in the courtroom.
The clerk of court, or his or her staff, is an excellent source for routine procedural information, but not for questions of substance or law. Clerks also do not interpret documents or courtroom proceedings.
For questions of legal substance, start with the lawyers in the case. The media are free to request interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers, during or after a trial. However, the attorneys have no obligation to speak with the media, and in fact may decline to do so because of ethical or strategic considerations. The same is true of plaintiff’s and defense counsel in a civil case.
If the attorneys trying the case decline to talk with you, you may call lawyers who have handled similar cases, or professors at a local law school.
Federal prosecutors. A U.S. attorney’s office, which is the local prosecutor’s office for the U.S. Department of Justice, tries major criminal cases in district court. This function is part of the executive branch, not the judicial branch. The U.S. attorney, who runs the office, is nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a four-year term.
Assistant U.S. attorneys ordinarily serve as the government’s lawyers in criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, they often are joined at the courtroom’s counsel table by the lead law enforcement agent who investigated the case. Assistant U.S. attorneys sometimes are assisted by counsel from other federal agencies if the case involves an investigation begun by those agencies.
[In criminal cases,] the defense almost always sits at the table farthest from the jury box.
Defense counsel. The right to counsel for criminal defendants is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. When a criminal defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint either a federal public defender, who is a full-time government lawyer, or a Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel attorney. Panel attorneys are private lawyers who receive an hourly fee from funds Congress provides the Judiciary for this purpose. About 90 percent of defendants in federal court are represented by court-appointed lawyers. Learn more about the federal defender and CJA system.
The defense almost always sits at the table farthest from the jury box. Unless they choose to represent themselves, criminal defendants who can afford it are represented by private counsel.
Attorneys in civil cases. There is no constitutional right to counsel in civil cases. In most civil cases that do not involve a government entity, the parties will engage private counsel, although a litigant may be self-represented. Some clerks will, at the direction of the court, assist a litigant in securing counsel who might take a case pro bono (without charging a fee).
U.S. citizens 18 years or older may qualify to serve on a federal court jury. Judges and attorneys use a process called voir dire to select the jurors who will participate in a case. Typically, 12 jurors are selected for criminal cases and six to eight jurors for civil cases. Jury selection is generally open to media.
During the selection process and trial, jurors usually are identified by number and not name. Jurors are strictly prohibited from discussing cases that are in progress, and you should not contact them, their families, or their close friends. You also should not speak about an active case if you know you are in a juror’s presence. Improper interaction with a juror can result in his or her dismissal from a panel. It also can lead to a mistrial, and a judge may choose to impose court sanctions against the responsible journalist.
Unless otherwise ordered by the court, once a trial concludes, you are permitted to speak with jurors, should they choose to do so. The release of juror names is governed by each court's jury plan, which is available either on the court's website or upon written request. Further, by law, a court’s chief judge may seal jurors’ identities even after a case concludes.
In high-profile cases, judges may have court security personnel escort jurors out of the courthouse to protect them from media attention. You may request, through your contact person in the clerk’s office, that the judge ask jurors who are willing to speak to the media to meet at a specified location inside or outside the courthouse after the trial has concluded. That gives journalists the access they want while providing a controlled environment in which the jurors may feel comfortable. However, jurors have no obligation to speak with the media.
Numerous other personnel are present in courtroom proceedings, although they do not have an official role in answering media questions.
Courtroom deputy clerks generally sit in front of the judge’s bench or to the side. In addition to maintaining case files, the courtroom deputy clerk calls cases at the beginning of a hearing, swears in witnesses during trials, and receives exhibits introduced into evidence during a trial.
Ethical restrictions prohibit law clerks from disclosing any confidential information or commenting on pending actions.
Law clerks work for judges, assisting them with legal research and writing. A law clerk performs most of his or her work in the judge’s chambers but also may sit near the bench during court proceedings. Ethical restrictions prohibit law clerks from disclosing any confidential information or commenting on pending actions. It is not unusual for judges to prohibit their law clerks from talking with the media.
Court reporters are responsible for recording transcripts of proceedings. They typically do so by using a stenographic machine, or by speaking into an audio recording hood, which looks like a mask. They typically are court employees, and are paid a salary for recording hearings and trials and providing transcripts to the judge and clerk of court. Court reporters sit in front of the judge, facing the attorneys. Information on how to obtain transcripts is available in Exhibits, Transcripts, and Courtroom Audio.
In cases that use audio recording instead of court reporters, electronic court recorder operators oversee the electronic sound recording equipment and create electronic log notes of proceedings.
Court-appointed interpreters, under the Court Interpreters Act, are present in criminal and civil cases instituted by the United States for defendants and witnesses who speak only or primarily a language other than English. Sign language interpreters also are appointed in such cases when hearing-impaired defendants or witnesses cannot fully understand proceedings or communicate with counsel or the judge. A judge also may appoint a sign language interpreter in proceedings not initiated by the federal government.
Security personnel of two types typically are present in a federal courthouse, although neither is employed by the federal Judiciary:
- Deputy U.S. marshals are responsible for the custody and transportation of prisoners and the safety of witnesses, jurors, and the judge. Two or more deputy marshals are present whenever a detained criminal defendant is in the courtroom. The deputies usually wear business attire during court proceedings.
- Court security officers are responsible for the public’s safety in the courthouse. Also known as CSOs, they staff the metal detectors, and at least one CSO generally is present at every civil and bankruptcy hearing. CSOs are contract employees and dress in blue blazers and gray pants.
Deputy marshals and CSOs report to a United States marshal, who oversees the security of the district court, as well as that district’s Witness Protection Program and the apprehension of federal fugitives. The President appoints, and the Senate confirms, a U.S. marshal for each federal court district. Marshals report to the U.S. attorney general.