Faced with a growing backlog of cases, Michigan court officials continue to indicate that health and safety are high on the priority list in making the decision to reopen courthouses and their various operations.
State court administrators and local judges say decisions made on the progressive conduct of jury trials are once again focused on the safety of jurors and everyone in the courtroom.
To that end, the Michigan Supreme Court has issued guidelines for local state courts as they plan to reopen after most have closed since March. Based on COVID-19 data and ongoing discussions with local health authorities, each local court is placed in one of four phases of returning to full activity.
The phases gradually extend from limited in-person activity to normal, said Jodi Latuszek, senior director of administration at the State Court’s administrative office.
Can’t see the map? Click here.
Courts must submit a request to move from one phase to the next and show a decrease in the positivity rate, as well as downward trajectories for documented cases, according to the Supreme Court ruling. Back to the Full Capacity guide.
“During each phase, we focused so strongly on ‘keep doing what you can do virtually’,” said Latuszek. “For all phases, we provided basic advice, but the real substance is what is in the court security plans. … Their phase… comes from their interactions and conversations with the local health department.
In Muskegon County, the decision to reopen the courthouse on March 1 was made in consultation with the county’s public health official, Kathy Moore. The first jury trial is scheduled for the week of March 22. The schedule allows time for employees to acclimatize to public visitors, as well as time to pull out jury summons, Moore said.
“I have met with judges and court administrators every Monday and we look at the statistics based on the parameters set by the Michigan Supreme Court,” Moore said.
Those statistics include examining all cases and outbreaks among county employees as well as rates of COVID in the community, she said.
It’s important to remember that while very few jury trials have taken place since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, other legal proceedings have unfolded virtually, regardless of what phase a court is in. , said Latuszek. Courts recorded 2 million hours of Zoom hearings as of January 31.
“At the end of the day, it’s people’s lives,” Latuszek said. “The last thing we want is for a court worker to get sick, or for someone going to court to get sick because we didn’t have proper safety precautions. Its very important.”
Face coverings, social distancing, plastic dividers and health screening issues are part of the safety plan for the first three phases.
These are the phases:
This means that the courts have very limited in-person activity, where employees who can work remotely should work remotely, Latuszek said. Faxes are used for court records, as well as e-mail and other electronic systems.
“It’s really limited to things where people have a constitutional or statutory right to be present in court,” she said.
The first phase occurs for several reasons, according to the Supreme Court guide. One reason is that there is a state or local order requiring shelter in place or restricted movement.
The other reason is that the COVID-19 test positivity rate is 15% or more and there is an increasing number of cases over a 14-day period, according to a local administrative order.
Court proceedings will continue virtually and each court can decide whether it wishes to allow the public inside in a limited manner, in accordance with a local administrative order.
Jury trials can restart under very limited circumstances during phase two, if the county has 70 or fewer cases per million per day and the test positivity rate is less than 10%, Latuszek said.
Courts move to phase two when the county has a test positivity rate of between 5 and 15% in the seven days preceding the phase change request, according to the Supreme Court guide.
“During phase two, the courts have a lot of leeway to adjust their security practices according to their current local public health conditions,” said Latuszek.
This phase is where jury trials, with appropriate security measures, are recommended.
“Phase three is as close to normal as it gets,” Latuszek said. “Some activities for the public are resuming. Courts can hold jury trials with security plans in place. “
Making jurors feel safe is an important part of Phase Three, she said. Jury selection can be a hundred or more people, so courts need to find a place to safely select jurors.
Some jurisdictions adhere to social distancing guidelines at a location outside the courthouse, such as a gymnasium, Latuszek said.
Courts move to phase three when the test positivity rate in the county is 5% or less, within seven days of the phase change request, according to the Supreme Court guide.
Phase four begins after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the President of the United States declares the pandemic over.
“Phase four is” Hey, we’re out of the pandemic. Life is back to normal, ”said Latuszek.
– MLive reporter Lynn Moore contributed to this report.