A courtroom is the enclosed space in which courts of law are held in front of a judge. A number of courtrooms, which may also be known as “courts”, may be housed in a courthouse. In recent years, courtrooms have been equipped with audiovisual technology to permit everyone present to clearly hear testimony and see exhibits.
The judge generally sits behind a raised desk, known as the bench. Behind the judge are the great seal of the jurisdiction and the flags of the appropriate federal and state governments. Judges usually wear a plain black robe (a requirement in many jurisdictions). An exception was the late U.S. Supreme CourtChief JusticeWilliam Rehnquist, who broke tradition by adorning his robe with four gold stripes on each sleeve. (Rehnquist reportedly said that he had been inspired to add the stripes by his having seen such stripes worn by the character of the judge, in a local production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operatic spoof of English jurisprudence, Trial by Jury.)
Adjacent to the bench are the witness stand and the desks where the court clerk and the court reporter sit. The courtroom is divided into two parts by a barrier known as the bar. The bar may be an actual railing, or an imaginary barrier. The bailiff stands (or sits) against one wall and keeps order in the courtroom.
On one side is the judge’s bench, the tables for the plaintiff, the defendant, and their respective counsel, and a separate group of seats known as the jury box where the jury sits. Apart from the parties to the case and any witnesses, only the lawyers can literally pass the bar (court personnel and jury members usually enter through separate doors), and this is the reason why the term the bar has come to refer to the legal profession as a whole (see bar association). There is usually a podium or lectern between the two tables where the lawyers may stand when they argue their case before the judge.
In the British Commonwealth (and many other countries), a courtroom used for trials of criminal cases often has a dock: a space exclusively reserved for seating a criminal defendant. It is marked off with a barrier, like the jury box and the witness stand. As late as the 1970s, some American courtrooms also had docks, but they gradually fell out of use. Defendants argued that they were prejudicial and interfered with the accused’s right to counsel, since defense attorneys were traditionally seated at the table for defense counsel and were not normally allowed to sit next to the dock.
There is usually an open space between the bench and the counsel tables, because of the court clerk and court reporter’s tables in front of the bench and the jury box on the side. This space is called the well. It is extremely disrespectful to the court[why?] for persons who are not court employees to directly “traverse the well” without permission—that is, to walk directly towards the bench across the well—and some courts have rules expressly forbidding this. Instead, if documents need to be given to or taken from the judge, attorneys are normally expected to approach the court clerk or bailiff, who acts as an intermediary. During trials, attorneys will ask the court’s permission to traverse the well or “approach the bench” for “sidebar” conferences with the judge.
On the other side of the bar is the gallery, with benches and chairs for the general public. In some cases the gallery is separated from the rest of the room by bulletproof glass.
All of the above applies only to trial courts. Appellate courts in the United States are not finders of fact, so they do not use juries or receive evidence into the record; that is the trial court’s job. Therefore, in an appellate court, there is neither a witness stand nor a jury box, and the bench is much larger to accommodate multiple judges or justices.
The walls are often partially or completely wood-paneled. This is a matter of style and tradition, but some jurisdictions have elected to construct courtrooms with a more modern appearance. Some courtroom settings are little more than a closed circuit television camera transmitting the proceedings to a correctional facility elsewhere to protect the court from violent defendants who view the proceedings on television within a jail conference room and are allowed duplex communications with the judge and other officers of the court. Many courtrooms are equipped with a speaker system where the judge can toggle a switch to generate white noise during sidebar conversations with the attorneys so that the jury and spectators cannot hear what is being discussed off-record.