Court on YouTube: How coronavirus is changing justice system

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Normally, going to court means going to a big building in the city. These days, the courthouse is in your house.

The Michigan Supreme Court has authorized the use of virtual courts for most counties, including most in West Michigan.

“It’s given us an avenue to start back up with some hearings and court dates and still keeping these court dates and these hearings available to the public to be seen,” Kent County Chief Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock said.

While his court had already been doing some business online, the authorization from the state’s upmost court allows for more.

The online MiCOURT Virtual Courtroom Directory allows people to navigate between all the participating counties and see which courtrooms have active cases. Those cases can be watched live on YouTube.

Courts are using the online meeting application Zoom, which has become ubiquitous during the COVID-19 crisis.

“A courtroom is open to the public. It’s only under rare circumstances that it would ever be closed. In fact, I’ve been on the bench 14 years and I’ve never closed a courtroom,” Trusock said.

That sentiment was echoed by the state’s top judge.

“One of the fundamental tenets of the rule of law is that we operate transparently. The public should be able to see what happens,” Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack said.

So far, online court has been limited to status conferences, sentencings, pleas and evidentiary hearings, as well as a lot of family court hearings including for divorce and child custody. It is now possible that bench trials — which operate without a jury and instead with a judge makes a ruling — could happen.

The chief justice added that jury trials are coming.

“We’re actually testing those. We have a jury trial pilot going right now,” McCormick said.

Many of the changes are here to stay.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to rethink what we do kind of from the ground up and I don’t know when else we would have been given this opportunity,” McCormick said. “This might not have been the disruption we wanted but it’s the disruption we needed.”

With virtual court, people do not have to take time off work to drive to the courthouse, park, and wait around — sometimes for hours — until their case is called.

“If you can go to your job and when it’s time for your hearing, go to your break room and appear on your phone, why wouldn’t we want to continue those efficiencies?” McCormick said. “I’m pretty proud of the trial court judges throughout the state who have learned a whole bunch of new skills and are now livestreaming their proceedings on YouTube. It’s pretty amazing.”

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