The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan tentatively plans to reopen four of its five courthouses for limited proceedings beginning May 4 to determine how quickly the court can resume criminal and civil jury trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court has selected approximately 65 criminal hearings – pleas, sentencings, evidentiary hearings, motions and probation and supervised release violations – to be conducted in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Bay City and Flint.
Because of social distancing requirements, hearing attendance will be limited to a small number of lawyers, witnesses, family members and others.
Judicial officers selected the approximately 65 criminal cases based on age, complexity and urgency.
These proceedings and the level of COVID will determine when and how the court will resume criminal and civil jury trials, as well as other hearings that have been on hold since the five courthouses were closed to the public in March 2020. Since the closure, these proceedings have been taking place via teleconferencing and videoconferencing when defendants agreed.
“Several court committees have been working diligently on how to safely bring people back into the courthouses,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood.
“After we finish with these initial proceedings, and based on the severity of COVID infections, we will evaluate when we can resume normal court operations,” Hood added. “The goal is to limit the number of people in the courthouse so we can contain the spread of COVID 19. Starting up is going to be difficult, but we are taking as many precautions as possible. We hope you will bear with us. It’s going to be a difficult world for a while.”
Since the courthouses closed in March 2020, judges and court staff have worked remotely, conducting more than 6,000 criminal arraignments, plea hearings, sentencings and other proceedings in criminal and civil cases by telephone or in Zoom videoconferences. But criminal and civil jury trials, as well as criminal hearings where defendants asked to appear in person in a courtroom were postponed indefinitely.
The hearings will be held in two courtrooms in Detroit and single courtrooms in Ann Arbor, Bay City and Flint. The courtrooms are equipped with Plexiglas shields, as well as hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. The courtrooms will be cleaned between proceedings according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirements.
The public, including the media, may listen to the proceedings online.
Movement within the courthouses will be limited to the area where the hearings will be held.
Everyone entering the courthouses will be required to socially distance, wear court-issued surgical-grade face masks and be screened at electronic kiosks. The kiosks will take their temperature and ask them a series of questions to determine if they have COVID symptoms, traveled out of state or been around with anyone suffering from COVID. Those who don’t pass the screening will be required to leave the courthouse immediately and contact the lawyer who requested that they attend the hearing.
In-court hearings will be listed among other publicly accessible proceedings on the court calendar on the court’s website at www.mied.uscourts.gov.
The attachment – “How to Sign Up for Zoom Court Hearings” – shows how to access those hearings.
Because of potential scheduling changes, in-person hearings will be identified as such on PACER (the court’s electronic docket).
Lawyers will be responsible for many of the arrangements, which are listed in detail in the attached “Courthouse and Courtroom Rules for Conduct for the Limited Phased Reopening.”
Among other things:
• Lawyers will be notified that their cases have been scheduled. They must advise the judge’s case manager seven days before a hearing about the number of lawyers, witnesses and family members planning to attend.
• Out-of-state attorneys and attendees who do not get tested before traveling and do not plan to quarantine in Michigan for ten days before the proceeding will be required to produce their vaccination cards. Photocopies and pictures of vaccination cards are not acceptable.
• Lawyers and others must arrive at the courthouse no earlier than 10 minutes before their hearings. Clients, victims, family members and witnesses may not enter the courtroom until asked by judicial staff. Everyone must leave the courthouse immediately after the hearing.
• Lawyers and participants will be directed to one of two courthouse entrances in Detroit. They must inform participants about the requirements for entering the courthouse and the courtroom where the hearing will be held. Counsel must provide participants with contact information so the lawyer may be notified immediately by those who are unable to enter the courthouse.
• Courtroom counsel tables will be limited to the primary attorney representing a client. That attorney must obtain permission from chambers staff before a second lawyer or other assistant may sit at the counsel table.
• Attorneys are responsible for ensuring that writs for out-of-state custodial defendants are issued and served on the U.S. Marshal’s Service at least 30 days in advance of the hearing.
Because of social distancing requirements, only one journalist will be permitted to attend in-person hearings. That journalist must be willing to serve as a pool reporter and provide information upon request to other journalists, including those who may listen electronically to the proceeding.
The pool reporter must be employed by a recognized media organization or have previously obtained a court-issued credential to enter the courthouses with a cellphone. (Reporters who have obtained such credentials have pledged to abide by the ethics policy of the Society of Professional Journalists.)
Only two people at a time will be permitted on elevators in Detroit. Arrangements for the Bay City courthouse are being reviewed. The clerk’s office and snack shop in Detroit will remain closed.
To determine if a hearing is to be held in person in court, check PACERor contact the Clerk’s Office at (313) 234-500 or the online chat on the court’s internet website or email the Public Access Team. Their link is on the court’s website under Notice Regarding Press and Public Access to Court Hearings.