On July 9th, I received an email from the Court’s clerk that stated the following: “This will be held in person. [Judge] expects everyone, including the parties, to appear masked up and ready to proceed to a hearing.” This was the first in-person hearing that I had scheduled in Oakland County Circuit Court since March 11, 2020, just before the COVID-19 shutdown.
In response to the Governor’s orders, and then out of an abundance of caution, courts have been closed to the public. In order to continue to serve the public, judges have been hearing most matters by Zoom. However, especially in family law cases, there are some instances where judges need the litigants in their courtrooms to be effective. This was one such case.
Back in March, the judge scheduled the matter for a contempt hearing for non-payment of support. The payor was ordered to personally appear and account for the non-payment. If the payer was found to have willfully violated the court’s support order, he could face time in jail. Sometimes, as the judge noted, these types of hearings are required to garner compliance. Either the payer comes prepared to make their payment or an “angel” appears with the funds necessary to pay the support owed before the payer has to spend any time in jail. There is simply no way to conduct such a hearing without having the accused appear in person.
It was certainly strange returning to a closed courthouse. The large parking lot was nearly empty. But for the fact that we were the only two arriving at that time, I wouldn’t have recognized my client behind her mask. As we approached the door, the deputy met us and asked if we had an appointment. When I said we did, he immediately knew the case and judge that we were there to see. We met in the vestibule by a nurse. She asked questions about our recent travel history and health. We had our temperatures taken. Then, we were allowed in through security. The elevators, the hall, and the courtroom were completely empty; though, the hallway floors were clearly marked with green “6 feet” stickers in anticipation of hallways full of people.
We were all “masked up and ready to proceed to hearing” as directed by the court’s email. Except for wearing masks throughout the proceeding, it felt very normal. We were able to maintain a safe distance, and we did not have any problems hearing or understanding each other. The judge, too, seemed pleased to be back behind the bench. “I am tasked with assessing the weight and credibility of testimony, and I just can’t do that over a video,” he said.
As I have adjusted my practice to using Zoom for all court appearances in the past four months, I have concluded that appearing in person is not always necessary. It has been great to skip the commute to the courthouse for quick hearings, and for the safety of our communities, I think it should stay that way to avoid unnecessary in-person contact. Despite this, knowing that the court system can proceed safely for limited in-person proceedings is comforting, especially when it allows me to better advocate for a client.