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Innovation and isolation key ingredients as jury trials slowly return to Michigan

Kentwood District Court held its first jury trial this week, other Michigan courts are using gymnasiums and auditoriums to keep the wheels of justice turning.

KENTWOOD, Mich. — A Kentwood man accused of domestic violence is the first person to have a jury trial in a Kent County courtroom since the coronavirus pandemic curtailed many in-person proceedings five months ago.

“It’s important to have jury trials; it’s the backbone of our justice system,’’ Kentwood District Court Judge William G. Kelly said.

Courts in other Michigan counties, including Oceana and Grand Traverse, are also phasing in jury trials under guidance from the State Court Administrative Office.

“Michigan really has shown itself to be a national leader in adapting to this new world we all live in,’’ said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack.

The supreme court’s administrative arm has established four phases governing how courts operate amid the coronavirus pandemic. No Michigan courtroom has returned to business as usual, which is the final phase.

“We got permission for the jury trial and they wanted to hear our feedback on whether it was successful or not,’’ Kelly said. “We’ve all been looking at various sources for how to do things safely.’’

Numerous safeguards were put in place to ensure social distancing. Jurors sat spaced on padded benches which normally hold courtroom spectators.

“In district court we have six jurors,’’ Kelly said. “And we want to make sure we can socially distance those six jurors.’’

Kentwood District Court typically has about 10 jury trials a year. Kelly said he is hopeful the backlog will be worked out by the end of the year.

“I think we’re going to be able to pull this off, but safety is the number one concern,’’ Kelly said.

Kent County Circuit Court has retooled a fifth-floor conference room for jury trials. Kent County Chief Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock said he is hoping trials can resume this fall.

RELATED: Conference room converted into courtroom as jury trials return to Kent County

“This has been a moving target,’’ Trusock said. “And every time we think we have something figured out, the rules of the game change. We’re trying to do our very best and provide justice to everyone involved.’’ 

The State Court Administrative Office is the administrative arm of the Michigan Supreme Court and has rules in place for when jury trials can resume. Courts go through four phases, with Phase 1 being the most limited. Courts under the Phase 1 designation are closed to the public and proceedings are done mainly online.

Phase 2 allows limited in-person proceeding while Phase 3 allows for more in-person proceedings combined with remote activity. Phase 4 has no limits.

According to the State Court Administrative Office, 10 percent of Michigan courts are in Phase 1, 52% are in Phase 2 and 38% are in Phase 3. 

No Michigan courtroom is in Phase 4 as of now.

Courts in Phase 2, such as Kentwood, need to provide the State Court Administrative Office a plan for holding jury trials. The plan is subject to approval. Courts in Phase 3 must follow strict guidelines, but do not need to submit a plan for jury trials.

“We’ve undergone more change in the trial court in the last four months than we have in the last two decades,’’ McCormack said. 

Across Michigan, courts are getting creative to ensure social distancing, she said. Oceana County, for instance, last week held its first jury trial in the Hart High School gymnasium. In Grand Traverse County, a high school auditorium was used for jury selection.

“The high school gym, I think, probably never saw a jury trial before,’’ McCormack said. “On the other hand, we now have some public spaces that are not in use, so we have an opportunity for innovation.’’

Kelly, who has been on the bench since 1979, says the coronavirus pandemic has brought innovation to Michigan courtrooms.

“We set up a virtual court here in my last year and it’s been challenging,’’ he said. “Everyone has been working together in the interest of justice.’’

McCormack agrees. “It’s really been incredible to see. I’m not surprised, but delighted day after day.’’

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