Michigan chief justice: Vaccinate judges, court staff in second wave

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack is asking the state's top doctor to allow judges and other court staff to be among those in the second tier of people in Michigan to be vaccinated.

In a letter Dec. 8 to Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive and chief deputy director of the Department of Health and Human Services, McCormack asked that judges and court workers who are still performing work in-person at courthouses across Michigan be among the "essential workers" to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice McCormack, inside the atrium on the sixth floor of the Michigan Hall of Justice, in Lansing, November 18, 2020.

Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for MDHHS, said state health officials updated the department's prioritization guidance Wednesday, in accordance with recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. 

Under the MDHHS guidelines, the first phase of vaccination, or Phase 1A, will be among health care workers at risk of exposure from patients or infectious materials, plus residents of long-term care facilities.

Phase 1B will include people 75 or older and frontline workers in critical infrastructure, followed by frontline workers in essential sectors who have to be within six feet of co-workers. The department's revised guidance includes such workers as teachers, child care workers, police and firefighters and corrections staff, among others, but does not specifically include court staff.

Michigan health officials have said they expect to receive 120,900 doses of COVID-19 vaccines each of the next two weeks. 

In her letter to Khaldun, McCormack said while COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available for high-risk residents and health care workers, "at-risk court staff must be included in plans to distribute and administer those vaccines."

The chief justice said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified “workers supporting the operations of the judicial system, including judges, lawyers, and others providing legal assistance” as essential critical infrastructure workers.

McCormack said judicial branch of government has "worked very hard" to protect both the public and court staff while also maintaining services to the public, "our democracy and our rights."

Courthouses across the state are primarily closed to the public while most hearings are being conducted online. Jury trials have been canceled but are expected to start up again in January and February in Wayne and Oakland counties.

But, said McCormack, much essential business still requires in-person work, especially that involving law enforcement personnel. McCormack said clerks and other court staff have been required to work in courthouses statewide since the beginning of the pandemic as courthouses across the state have worked to process cases.

"Most people entering courthouses do not have the option of not showing up in court; they are mandated to be there to handle essential court business," said McCormack. "As a result, there is a high probability for interaction between court employees and unvaccinated individuals in courthouse facilities."

Michigan courts spokesman John Nevin said chief judges for circuit courts and administrators have been working with local health departments to determine how to proceed with administrative orders from the governor's office.

"The judiciary must have a role in identifying court staff who should be included in this category because vaccinating essential court personnel will keep our court system running, safeguard rights, and slow the spread of the virus," wrote McCormack.

Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny announced earlier in December that jury trials will resume in three months, setting a timetable for the gradual end of restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After consulting with Wayne County Health Department officials, the court announced it will slowly resume jury and bench trials as well as evidentiary hearings and other in-person proceedings on a "limited basis."

Despite creating safety measures to protect jurors, judges and other staff, the court halted the limited jury trials and other in-person hearings it had phased in along with other in-person proceedings until January. The court's safety plan included health screening and installation of  plex-shield barriers in courtrooms.

“As the numbers are on an upward spiral, it is clear that it would not be safe to continue jury trials, bench trials, and evidentiary hearings at this time,” Kenny said in November.

 Kenny told The News earlier this year that "hundreds" of hearings and other matters had been adjourned because of the public closure and adjournments of trials created by the COVID-19 crisis.

Oakland County jury service is canceled until Feb. 19, 2021, according to the Oakland County Circuit Court website, while almost all proceedings remain remote in Macomb County Circuit Court.

Michigan has confirmed 469,928 cases of COVID-19 and 11,775 related deaths since the virus was first detected in March, according to tracking by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.