ST. JOSEPH — Before the coronavirus outbreak hit, dozens of people typically lined the hallways at the Berrien County Courthouse, waiting for their case to be called.
Now, anyone entering the building must answer a series of health-related questions and wear a face mask, most of the chairs that line the hallways are roped off with caution tape, some doors are propped open to limit touching, and hallways throughout the courthouse are eerily empty.
The Michigan Supreme Court issued an order on March 18 limiting activities and assemblages in court facilities throughout the state.
Trial courts were ordered to limit access to courtrooms and other spaces to no more than 10 people, including staff, to practice social distancing and limit court activity to only essential functions.
Jury trials were adjourned and courts were ordered to, as much as possible, conduct essential hearings remotely using two-way interactive video technology.
The Michigan Supreme Court now has developed guidelines for courts to return to full capacity. How soon courts complete the four-phase plan will be unique to each court, with each chief judge relying on public health information from their local health authorities.
“We cannot have 559 different plans,” the Supreme Court noted in its COVID-19 Guidelines for Michigan’s Judiciary. “Ultimately, by using the phased approach provided in these guidelines, courts statewide will return to full capacity on their own timelines.”
Each phase of the plan relies on a 14-day downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases, so the plan will be unique to each county. Each court must submit their plans to the State Court Administrative Office and gain approval to enter each phase.
Berrien County Trial Court received approval Thursday to enter Phase 1. Key components of the plan include screening anyone entering the building with a series of questions, having clear markings for social distancing, plus requiring face masks. Court Administrator Carrie Smietanka-Haney said that although some people have been tested, there have been no positive tests for COVID-19 from within the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph or Niles, or at the Juvenile Center in Berrien Center.
“We’ve been very lucky,” she said.
Chief Judge Mabel Mayfield said that as the first orders came down in March, the court immediately began to rotate staff in the building, with most people working remotely. She credits the county’s Information Systems department for quickly expanding remote capacity and workers for adapting to it.
“We walked into this in mid-March, and everything happened so fast,” she said.
Mayfield said she has finalized two adoptions remotely and finalized a divorce with a woman using Zoom on her cell phone in a car.
“She was a passenger, but I still asked them to pull over because of the traffic noise. We would proceed just as if in court, so we have to meet the standards for transcription,” the judge said. She said the woman had received help with her divorce filing from the court’s Self-Help Legal Resources.
“She (the client) had a time that she was to call in, and she called in from the car,” Mayfield said.
The judge said the positive side of the sudden changes is the discovery that there might be a more efficient way to do some things.
For example, with a divorce docket in normal times, people all appear at the same time and wait, sometimes for hours, for their case to be called. Now, she said, clients are given a specific time to call the judge to conduct a hearing remotely.
“We’ve greatly expanded our remote capacity thanks to Information Systems, and it’s working very well,” Smietanka-Haney said.
Mayfield and Smietanka-Haney said that in the midst of a crisis, they could not ask for better employees.
“It’s been about collaboration, cooperation and imagination, to ensure public safety and justice,” Mayfield said.
Smietanka-Haney said courts throughout Michigan have implemented creative ways to balance public health and justice.
Van Buren County
Frank Hardester, trial court administrator for Van Buren County Courts, said the court has long talked about the possibility of some employees working from home. Now, about half of them are, he said.
“Our goal has always been to communicate and be accessible and transparent. We’ve always done a lot online or by video, so now we’ve expanded that,” Hardester said. “And if someone needs to file something, they can email it or drop it in a box outside the building. Then we process those things within the court. Employees are checking their voice mail and email more than in the past.”
Hardester said he submitted the court’s plan to enter Phase 1 on Thursday and was expecting to enter that phase Monday.
“The big question is, when do we return to jury trials? That’s been a big question,” he said.
Because the first three phases of the plan to return to full capacity limit the number of people allowed in one room to 10, in-person jury selection is impossible, and a 12-person jury would exceed the number of people allowed in a courtroom.
Hardester and Van Buren County Chief Judge Kathleen Brickley are on a committee that is conducting a mock trial using a jury remotely.
“Right now we’re focusing on the technicalities. For example, the assumption would be that you want the jury to be tech-savy. But if you’re using only people who are tech-savy, that’s not a cross section of people,” he said.
“Another question is would every juror have a quiet room in their home in which to watch a case,” he added. Also, there may be no way to confine jurors together to deliberate in secret once they get a case.
Hardester predicts that the days of “cattle calls,” requiring dozens of people to come to court and wait for their case to be called might be a thing of the past.
“This (conducting proceedings remotely) has forced the court to follow a little bit of a schedule. Right now we have what I think of as an online waiting room,” he said. “Change is always difficult in any organization. But when you’re forced to make a dramatic change, the bottom line is we’re open and people are thankful.”
For the public, Van Buren courts are live-streaming some of their proceedings, and was the first court in Michigan to do so. Viewers can go to www.vbco.org, click on courts, and find instructions and links for viewing or taking part in court online.
People can obtain a copy of a court proceeding by filling out an online form, and the $20 fee has been removed.
Hardester said people involved in a criminal case that is being held by Zoom should remember that once they are connected, they are in a courtroom.
“You need to be in a quiet space, avoid distractions, and not be eating or drinking or wearing a hat,” he said.
Specialty courts are a bit different. For example, if a drug court client is meeting with a judge, probation officer or caseworker by video, “It’s not as formal. If someone is outside, petting a horse, that’s OK. This has forced us to understand there are many services we could provide in a different format,” Hardester said.
A slow return to normal
In Berrien County, Mayfield and Smietanka-Haney said things will not look much different as the court enters Phase 1 of the plan to return to full capacity.
“Public access will stay as remote as possible,” Smietanka-Haney said. “You have to be in each phase for at least 14 days before moving on, and if there is a surge in cases, you go back.”
By Phase 3, the public has more access to the buildings, but social distancing is still in place, and court should still be held remotely as much as possible. She said the court hopes to be in Phase 3 by July.
Hardester said Van Buren’s goal is to enter Phase 2 by July.
“We’re taking a 30-day approach for each phase,” he said.
Mayfield said that even when the court is back to full capacity, things will never be exactly as they were.
“We’ve discovered some efficiencies with enhanced technology,” she said. ”We’ve definitely identified some areas of efficiency that will remain in place. Virtual court will never go away.”