What are Michigan courts going to do during the coronavirus outbreak?

Posted at 6:18 PM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 21:05:40-04

(WXYZ) — As more and more events are canceled due to the coronavirus, there are still questions about a key part of our democracy: What do we do about the courts?

How do prosecutors and judges balance essential rights along with the need to keep the public safe?

The Michigan Supreme Court so far has issued recommendations to lower courts. Right now, the decisions to close local courts is being left up to individual district and circuit courts.

Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper tells 7 Action News that her office is putting in place a number of policies to keep her prosecutors safe, but they also must move forward on certain cases.

“We’re not talking about anything other than we need to protect the public,” said Cooper.

Cooper says in order to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, her office is suspending things like flying out of state to pick up prisoners.

“We’ve shut down anything that requires travel, expert witnesses,” said Cooper.

Cooper said the other cases that can be postponed include “white-collar cases, the cases that are lower level felonies, the cases that don’t involve physical violence.”

She says she’s encouraging any assistant prosecutors who feel sick to stay home. She says her office does have a work from home plan, but not every lawyer will be able to do that.

Right now, the Michigan Supreme Court is recommending that judges postpone all jury trials, unless the criminal defendant is currently locked up.

“There’s a problem – we have cases that are waiting, we have due process cases. And now that they’ve publicized the fact that [those are] the only cases that would be going, then the jurors, should there be jurors, would know that this defendant is incarcerated. And then there’s a little due process problem all through this whole proceeding,” Cooper told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

The Supreme Court can make recommendations about minimizing crowds in the courts, but ultimately it’s up to the individual judges.

Cooper’s assistant prosecutors have to work with 20 different circuit court judges, and 31 different district court judges across the county. She says right now, no one seems to have a clear directive on whether trials are moving forward and what to do about jurors who are more worried about a virus rather than a verdict.

“One judge adjourned a hearing; another judge hasn’t returned our phone calls. We don’t know if they’re going to bring in a jury venire to begin with-- if they are going to have problems, bringing in that group of people. If the [jurors] say no, is that contemptuous or is that fear? Reasonable fear,” said Cooper.

The Oakland County judges are meeting tomorrow to work out which trials are going forward. Court officials say they will make a final decision next week on various trials. They are also working with the Oakland County Bar Association and talking regularly with the Oakland County Health Department.

Meanwhile, the Wayne County Circuit Court is already taking action. Third Circuit Chief Judge Timothy Kenny issued a memo to all court employees Thursday saying judges will exercise their discretion in handling court business. Judge Kenny said in order to address the state of emergency, starting Monday March 16, 2020, judges will:

-Continue to conduct all in-custody criminal and juvenile jury trials as scheduled,

-Continue to conduct all in-custody and not in-custody criminal and juvenile bench trials as scheduled,

-Adjourn all civil and non in-custody (bond) criminal and juvenile jury trials scheduled through Monday March 30, 2020

Wayne County judges will also:

-Conduct remote hearings whenever possible.

-Adjourn hearings with ill or medically vulnerable persons.

-Adjourn trials if attorneys, parties, jurors or necessary witnesses are ill or demonstrate symptoms of illness

-Increase video conferencing

Wayne County asks that if you are sick and a litigant, witness or juror, notify the appropriate courtroom but do not come to court.

On Thursday, 46th District Court took measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus as well.

According to a press release, “Chief Judge Shelia Johnson of the 46th District Court in Southfield, Michigan has directed that the Court take immediate action to reduce the risk to litigants and court staff. The purpose of implementing the changes is to reduce the number of persons in the court building until further notice. This notice is subject to change and will remain in effect until further notice by the Chief Judge Johnson.

Effective immediately, all non-emergency motions and hearings will be adjourned for 60 days. Notices of new dates will be sent directly from the Court. Polycom video will be used for hearings whenever possible. Please contact Court Administration for information on how litigants may download the Polycom Application.

Please contact the Court directly at 248-796-5800.