TRAVERSE CITY — The 86th District Court is gearing up to begin in-person jury selections and jury trials for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
The court will hold jury selections in person on Oct. 20 for the first time since March 2020. Throughout the pandemic, most court proceedings have been conducted online, except for a few preliminary exams, and jury selections and jury trials have not taken place at all.
The court’s judges and administrators still are discussing what actions may be taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the courtroom during in-person jury trials, but the plan currently involves social distancing, masks and sanitizing the courtroom.
In order to allow for proper social distancing, jury selection will take place at the Park Place Hotel, court administrator Carol Stocking said. During trials, masks will be required in the courtrooms, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes will available to all jurors and litigants, jury deliberations will take place in a larger room than usual, everyone entering the courtroom will have their temperature taken and jurors will receive separate instruction books, Stocking said.
The orientation of the courtroom is subject to change as well. Instead of sitting in the jury box, jurors will be spread out and may potentially sit in the public seating area, behind the attorney podiums, Stocking said. The court may also change the direction of the attorneys’ podiums so they can face the jurors.
The number of people present at trials will be limited as well. If too many people showed up to the courtroom, Stocking said the presiding judge would decide whether some people will sit in a separate room and watch it via livestream.
“I know that the judges intend to keep the numbers of people in the courtroom down to a minimum,” Stocking said. “We don’t usually have a big crowd for jury trials anyway.”
Most of the 86th District Court’s proceedings, such as hearings, conferences and arraignments, will remain virtual, as the Michigan Supreme Court still requires Michigan courts to conduct as many proceedings virtually as possible.
In many cases, virtual court has made court proceedings more accessible for defendants. Attorney Paul Jarboe said the ability to show up to brief court hearings and conferences virtually has worked well for his clients.
“No longer are people required to take a half day or a full day off of work to attend a very brief court appearance,” Jarboe said. “No longer are people waiting out in the district court hallway for hours waiting for the case to be called.”
Virtual court proceedings are more efficient, Jarboe said, and they allow attorneys to attend multiple hearings in one day.
“From the lawyer’s standpoint, we’re able to appear in multiple courts to handle multiple hearings in a day or in a morning or afternoon, without the need to leave the office,” he said.
There are upsides to completing regular court proceedings online, but Jarboe also said that some cases and hearings still should occur in person.
“I’m hopeful that we can strike an appropriate balance between those cases and hearings that we can handle virtually and those that should require court appearance,” Jarboe said.
Attorney Mark Risk said routine virtual procedures work great, but without the in-person element to high-stakes court proceedings, a lot can be lost.
“Where you have to assess the credibility of a witness or where you’re going to have sustained legal arguments in front of a judge, I think that’s important to do that in person,” Risk said.
Risk said in person in the courtroom is “a better atmosphere for bringing out the truth.”
“The more a judge can be able to observe and see, the better I think the judge’s ultimate ruling is going to be,” Risk said. “So, some of that is lost with a telephone hearing.”
There will likely not be any in-person jury trials until December or January, Stocking said. However, in-person jury selections and jury trials are subject to cancellation for a number of reasons.
“We’re okay with [the positivity rate] around the 10% mark, but if it gets too high we will cancel jury selection and jury trials,” Stocking said. “To cancel a jury selection, we would do that if some party to the case tested positive; we would do it if we end up not having enough jurors because of COVID numbers. So, there’s just some realistic kinds of things that might come into play.”
The 13th Circuit Court has been consistently commencing in-person jury selections and jury trials during the course of the pandemic, barring a span between October and December 2020 when the COVID-19 positivity rate in the area was deemed too high. Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said the 13th Circuit Court has “done a great job” in performing jury selection and jury trials during the pandemic, and she expects the same from the 86th District Court.
“The courts are doing a very good job of keeping everyone safe,” Moeggenberg said. “Obviously that’s their main concern and when they have had to stop because the numbers are high, they do.”
Moeggenberg said she has not heard any complaints about the 13th Circuit Court’s handling of in-person proceedings.
“We’re taking the same precautions if your kids are going to school, if you’re going to the grocery store, if you’re going to work,” Moeggenberg said. “I think the precautions that the courts right now are taking — at least 13th Circuit Court and assuming that the 86th District Court will do the same — those precautions are even stricter than what you have in those other arenas.”