Michigan courts officials prepare to reopen — gradually

While there is no set date for when Michigan's 242 trial courts will reopen, state court officials and others have been holding meetings in the last several weeks to prepare for the eventual resumption of normal business.

Courts, both at the district and county level, have been operating on restricted hours and public access since the end of last month.

Empty parking lots around the 36th District Court in Detroit on Mar. 19, 2020. The courts are limiting their dockets and adjourning all civil, traffic and non in-custody (bond) felony and criminal matters scheduled through Sunday, April 5, 2020.

When the courts are open, some restrictions will stay in place such as conducting hearings remotely through the popular Zoom online platform to protect the safety and health of the public, attorneys and court staff from the possible spread of the coronavirus.

Limitations of court operations also will include the suspension of jury duty until mid-August. 

Discussions about reopening focus on creating a safe environment during COVID. Challenges include creating screening procedures for court staff and visitors, setting priorities for processing cases and facilitating remote work by court staff, attorneys and others associated with cases and proceedings.

Most courts have case backlogs, with staff working at reduced capacity and in-person hearings delayed for both non-felony and many felony cases. 

"Some cases are backlogged because of hearings being adjourned and new matters not being set. Still more cases will come into the trial courts as legal and public health conditions continue to relax," according to a notice sent from the State Courts Administrative Office's Return to Full Capacity Toolkit shared with judges, court administrators and other court officials across the state.

"We are confident that courts are accepting new filings, opening incoming mail, processing new cases ... entering them in the CMS, and responding to any phone or e-mail inquiries. It is also vitally important that courts continuously monitor and track all pending cases to ensure that no case is without a future action date."

Birmingham divorce attorney Jessica Woll is among local attorneys eagerly awaiting the physical opening of local courts.

"I would be so thrilled," said Woll, also the author of the newly-released book "The Wise Divorce."

Woll said filing paperwork for cases is expensive and Zoom hearings are not as effective as those conducted in person.

"I can read a room and the judge's expression," she said. "During a Zoom hearing, I (mistakenly) talked over a judge."

On Wednesday, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an executive order related to remote hearings. As part of the order, the court may collect an individual's contact information, including mobile phone number and email addresses, to help facilitate remote hearings or to process a case.

On April 29, the Michigan Supreme Court issued an administrative order instructing judges, court clerks and others to create two forms allowing them to collect a party's or witnesses' contact information, including cell phone numbers and email addresses.

"The form allows the individual to consent to receiving text messages, voice messages, and e-mails from the court. Additionally, new form MC 506 helps courts provide notice when a hearing will be held remotely," according to the directive. "The form instructs the individual to confirm with the court that they are able to participate remotely; includes the date, time, and method of the remote hearing; and provides guidance for the individual to access and participate in the remote hearing." 

The preparations for the courts to reopen once the governor lifts public restrictions could include testing court staff for COVID-19.

“Like the federal courts and based on CDC guidance, daily testing of court personnel for symptoms of illness will be recommended. However, ultimately, the decision will be up to each chief judge and based on local conditions,” said John Nevin, a spokesman for the Michigan State Courts Administrative Office.