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A Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts

Federal judges and the journalists who cover them share an important goal: They want the public to receive accurate and understandable information about the federal courts and their work.

The media perform an important and constitutionally protected role by informing and educating the public. The media also serve a time-honored role as the public’s watchdog over government institutions, including the courts. Likewise, courts uphold many of the legal protections that enable journalists to perform their jobs. A Journalist’s Guide to the Federal Courts is intended to assist reporters who cover appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts – the cases, the people, and the process. It also offers basic information for journalists writing about the federal court system as a whole. The guide does not discuss the Supreme Court of the United States. Go to the Supreme Court website for helpful resources.

The Guide is intended to help working reporters perform their professional duties; it is not a comprehensive overview of the federal courts. Find additional online resources about the federal Judiciary.

The Guide does not constitute a statement of Judicial Conference policy and is not binding on any federal court or its judges or employees. Individual courts have varied approaches to media relations. Journalists should familiarize themselves with the customs, practices, and rules of the courts they cover.

In addition to this Guide, you may consult and the Office of Public Affairs at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, (202) 502-2600. Search for specific court location and website information using the Court Locator.

Use the links below or on the right-hand sidebar to access specific sections of the Guide.

Federal Court: Media Basics

    Media Access in Brief
    Recording and Broadcasting
    Electronic Devices

Courthouse Contacts

    Clerk of Court’s Office
    Other District Court Personnel

Accessing Court Documents

    Online Access
    Older Documents
    User Fees
    Sealed Documents and Closed Hearings

District Courts

Reporting on Criminal Cases

    Investigations and Related Documents
    Grand Juries and Indictments
    Felony Preliminary Proceedings
    Criminal Complaints and Informations
    Pretrial Motions
    Guilty Pleas

Covering Criminal Trials

    The Jury
    Opening Statements
    Exhibits, Transcripts, and Courtroom Audio
    Motion to Acquit
    Closing Arguments
    Jury Instructions, Deliberations, and the Verdict
    Post-Verdict Interviews
    Non-Capital Sentencing
    Death Penalty Sentencing

Covering Civil Cases

    Filing the Complaint
    The Plaintiff’s Claim
    The Defendant’s Answer
    Pretrial Proceedings
    Ending a Case Without a Trial
    Summary Judgment
    Civil Trials

Appellate Courts and Cases

    Appellate Court Sources and Resources
    The Appeals Process
    Appeals Raising Constitutional Issues
    Death Penalty Appeals
    Three-Judge Panels

Bankruptcy Courts and Cases

    Accessing Bankruptcy Records
    Bankruptcy Process
    Bankruptcy Appeals

Judges and Judicial Administration

    Federal Judges
    Federal Court Organization
    Judicial Administration
    Circuit Judicial Councils
    Chief Judges
    Judicial Disciplinary Process

Other Judiciary Entities

    Criminal Justice Act Defense System (Court-Appointed Counsel)
    Who Provides Court-Appointed Counsel
    How CJA Cases Are Funded
    The CJA and Death-Penalty Cases
    Probation and Pretrial Services Officers
    Central Violations Bureau

Helpful Resources