Mich. chief justice: Courts must meet challenge of 'public health crisis'

Lansing — Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack says "emergency action to protect the public" should take precedence over "normal operating procedures" inside courtrooms.

McCormack detailed on Monday the reasons behind an emergency order issued a day earlier that encouraged courts to use technology as much as possible and to limit the number of people gathered in lobbies and courtrooms.

The Michigan State Supreme Court's order allows trial courts to enact "emergency measures" to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, including postponing cases.

“Michigan courts must act to help meet the challenge of this truly profound public health crisis," she said during a press conference.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack hears a case.

Criminal cases can be adjourned, when there isn't a defendant in custody, as well as civil cases, according to the order. When there is a defendant incarcerated, videoconferencing should be used "when the defendant consents."

However, McCormack said courts must still be available to handle emergency matters and to protect people from danger.

The order also includes:

• In civil cases, trial courts should maximize the use of technology to enable and/or require parties to participate remotely. Any fees charged to allow parties to participate remotely should be waived.

•Trial courts may reduce the number of cases set to be heard at any given time to limit the number of people gathered in entrance ways, lobbies, corridors or courtrooms.

•Trial courts should maximize the use of technology to facilitate electronic filing and service to reduce the need for in-person filing and service.

•Trial courts should, wherever possible, waive strict adherence to any adjournment rules or policies and administrative and procedural time requirements.

•Trial courts should coordinate with the local probation departments to allow for discretion in the monitoring of probationers’ ability to comply with conditions without the need for amended orders of probation.

•Trial courts should take any other reasonable measures to avoid exposing participants in court proceedings, court employees, and the general public to the  COVID-19 virus.

•In addition to giving consideration to other obligations imposed by law, trial courts are urged to take into careful consideration public health factors arising out of the present state of emergency: a) in making pretrial release decisions, including in determining any conditions of release and b) in determining any conditions of probation.

•If a chief judge or the court’s funding unit decides to close the court building to the public, the chief judge shall provide the State Court Administrative Office with the court’s plan to continue to provide critical services, including handling emergency matters.

The emergency measures will last until the end of business April 3. 

Local courts in Metro Detroit began announcing courthouse closures and case adjournments in response to the court's order.

On Monday, 41-A District Court in Sterling Heights announced it is closed "until further" notice. Sterling Heights is operating under an emergency declaration with city offices closed until March 31.

"The courthouse will be CLOSED with limited services available, and open for limited and essential hearings only, starting on March 16 until further notice," according to a news release.

In Dearborn, 19th District Court said it would be closed with limited staff reporting "to conduct essential duties only," with all scheduled hearings adjourned from Monday until April 3.

"Emergency matters, including in-custody arraignments, will be conducted unless otherwise ordered by the court," officials said in a news release. "In-custody arraignments will be conducted via videoconferencing."

Chief Judge Shalina Kumar of  Oakland County Circuit Court issued an order Monday adjourning criminal cases through March 31 and for the court to remain open to "handle only essential operations" such as emergency bond motions, arraignments on bench warrants and warrants for probation violators.

All criminal jury trials scheduled to begin in the next 30 days will be adjourned. Criminal trials that were in progress as of Monday will continue, however. Sentencing hearings for defendants already in custody will be done by video.

Hearings for family court are adjourned unless there is an emergency motion, which will be conducted electronically. Cases involving emergency personal protection motions will be heard on a case-by-case basis.

Officials at the 51st District Court in Waterford are also putting restrictions in place, such as adjourning civil matters and jury trials in criminal cases where the defendants are not in custody and out on bond.

"The goal of the Judges of the 51st District Court is to keep our workforce and litigants healthy, and maintain essential operations over the coming weeks and months," according to a notice on the court's website.

Civil trials, mediation cases and small claims matters are adjourned. But general civil/landlord tenant will proceed, according to the court.

Those looking to have a wedding ceremony performed at the court will have to wait.

"All weddings will be postponed, and will be re-evaluated in April," the court's notice read.

As the case with other courts across the state, officials encouraged those who are sick, "medically compromised"  or in a "high-risk" population to contact the court to have their case adjourned.

In Highland Park, 30th District Court administrator Robynn  Diamond said the courthouse is closed to the public and will only be available for cases scheduled for Tuesday and March 24.

Diamond said other court business can be conducted online. She added that judges are also being encouraged to conduct some proceedings through video conferencing and video arraignments.

"We certainly want to be mindful of the health and safety of the public, our defendants, attorneys and court staff," she said. "We're going to be fluid and flexible as information with regards to the coronavirus is made available."

Thursday, Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny announced that the court was adjourning all civil proceedings and delaying some criminal and juvenile cases in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Kenny told The Detroit News that civil cases will be adjourned through March 30 and that criminal and juvenile cases in which the defendant is out on bond will be adjourned as well.

On Friday, Kenny again stressed that the court would remain opened for "essential operations."

Those included hearing arraignments for incarcerated defendants, emergency bond motions, abuse/neglect cases at Wayne County's Juvenile Court at the Lincoln Hall of Justice as well as domestic cases involving personal protection orders.

All other cases are expected to be suspended until March 30.

Kenny told The News Thursday that he is encouraging judges in some cases to hold hearings, conferences and other proceedings remotely, "using technology whenever possible" and to adjourn hearings involving ill or medically vulnerable individuals, attorneys, jurors or "necessary" witnesses if they are ill.

"If you are sick and a litigant, witness or juror, notify the appropriate courtroom, but do not come to court," Kenny advised Thursday. "If while in the courtroom you see someone who appears to be sick, notify courtroom staff."