Just about everything that happens in a courtroom can seem confusing to someone who hasn’t experienced the justice system firsthand. Even the courtroom itself can be confounding. This overview, however, will help orient you to the typical criminal court.
Most courtrooms have a spectator area in the back, often separated by a “bar” or partition from the rest of the courtroom. Members of the public, including those who come to court to support a family member or friend, sit in this area.
Defendants who are free on bail (or OR) usually sit in the spectator area of the courtroom until their cases are called by the courtroom clerk, bailiff, or judge. In-custody defendants wait in holding cells and are escorted into the courtroom by a bailiff.
Defendants. Typically, once a judge calls a case, the defendant and his or her attorney move out of the gallery, past the bar. Defendants should sit or stand as directed by their attorneys (if they have counsel) or by the judge, courtroom clerk, or bailiff. The custom is different in different proceedings and different courtrooms. For example, during arraignment, defendants typically stand, facing the judge. However, at trial or a hearing on a motion, they may sit at counsel table.
Lawyers. Whether lawyers stand, and where they do so, depends again on the proceeding. In pretrial hearings, lawyers may stand at counsel table or right in front of the judge, or they may sit. In trials, lawyers usually sit or stand at counsel table, with the prosecutor usually on the side closest to the jury box. (Most defense lawyers stand when addressing the judge or questioning witnesses.)
Jurors sit in the rows of seats near the judge, called the jury box, during trial. The jury box may remain empty during nonjury proceedings (or when a jury is deliberating), or the judge may use it to seat lawyers or in-custody defendants during pretrial hearings (including arraignments and motions).
The judge’s bench is the raised wooden desk or podium at the front of the courtroom where the judge sits. Attorneys and defendants alike shouldn’t go near the bench unless they ask for and receive the judge’s permission to do so. Forbidden territory includes the “well,” which is the space between counsel table and the bench, where the courtroom clerk and the court reporter may sit. (Courtroom clerks may alternatively sit on the side of the judge’s bench opposite the witness box.)
Judges usually have private offices called chambers that are located in a room adjacent to or behind the courtroom. A judge and the attorneys may have a conference in chambers during a trial or other proceeding, especially if they want to go “off the record” and have a quiet place to confer. Also, some judges prefer to hold plea bargain negotiations in chambers.
Attorneys may request that in-chambers conferences be put “on the record” if they want to document what either the lawyers or judges are saying. This is a request that the conference be recorded word for word by a court reporter and preserved as part of the case for possible later review. (See Appeals in Criminal Cases and Writs in Criminal Cases.)
For all kinds of related information about the court experience, see Going to Court.