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Courts forced to respond to coronavirus concerns

By: Alex Szwarc, Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published March 20, 2020

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MACOMB COUNTY — It was only a matter of time before the coronavirus crisis made its way into local courts.

Judges and jurors, litigants and attorneys, police officers, defendants, and court employees crowded together for court doesn’t sound anything like “social distancing.” But weighing safe practices with demanding dockets and rights to due process has emerged as a real challenge while the world comes to grips with the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney Bill Barnwell had been sounding the alarm for days before he received an afternoon phone call about another attorney’s positive test for COVID-19, following an appearance in a crowded Macomb County courtroom where Barnwell also appeared on March 16.

“Apparently, he was in the courtroom at the same time I was. The courtroom was packed,” Barnwell said a few hours after he got that call on March 19. He went on to describe the setting on the “motion day” March 16 at the Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens. “The courtroom was packed. You had people coughing and sneezing. I thought it was absurd we were having court to begin with.”

Barnwell, of Warren, is a criminal defense attorney whose caseload takes him to courts across the region. He started an online petition at change.org on March 15 under the heading “Close Michigan Courts Except for Emergencies, and Protect Members of the Bar and the Public.” The petition had more than 1,150 signatures at press time.

“They were already sounding the alarm on this. Other courts are shutting down. They arrogantly did not,” Barnwell said of the decision to keep the Macomb County Circuit Court docket in place on March 16. “Now, theoretically, that puts everyone else at risk. It was completely unnecessary and absolutely preventable. They put a bigger emphasis on moving their dockets along. Instead of getting out ahead of this, they have waited until the crisis comes right to their doorstep. That’s poor leadership.”

Chief Judge James Biernat Jr., of the Macomb County Circuit Court, issued an order addressing the COVID-19 situation on March 17 and a statement on March 19.

The statement indicated that the Macomb County Circuit Court, the Macomb County Probate Court and the 42nd District Court in New Baltimore would operate in accordance with an administrative order of the Michigan Supreme Court that limits access to courtrooms and other spaces to no more than 10 people, including staff, effective immediately. According to the statement, the administrative order also closes the courts to the general public with the exception of “essential functions involving health and safety and constitutional rights.” Dockets will be reassigned to designated judges “in order to efficiently handle these matters.”

“The circuit court takes the current state of emergency very seriously, and the health of the public and the staff is of utmost importance,” Biernat said in the statement. “We have taken proactive steps to limit foot traffic in our courthouse, even in advance of the Supreme Court’s administrative order on Sunday (March 15).

“The Supreme Court issued administrative order 20202-02 last night (March 18) outlining essential trial court operations, which is mostly consistent with the steps we have already taken,” Biernat said. “We have continued to revisit our processes on a daily, even hourly basis, to respond to the evolving situation.”

For criminal proceedings, all hearings required to be conducted (arraignments, pleas, sentencing, and emergency bond motions for in-custody defendants; and for all defendants, criminal extradition processing) will be done remotely using telephone and video conferencing. All other matters are adjourned.

All civil and business matters, with the exception of infectious disease proceedings and limited personal protection order issues, are adjourned. A limited scope of emergency matters may still be heard remotely.

As outlined in the Michigan Supreme Court order, domestic proceedings for the safety and well-being of litigants and children, safe delivery of newborns, and waiver of parental consent will continue. All other domestic proceedings are adjourned.

Juvenile delinquency hearings and child protective proceedings as outlined in the order will continue. Friend of the Court bench warrant arraignments will continue, along with emergency matters only. All other matters are adjourned.

The Macomb County Probate Court will continue to hear emergency matters identified in the state Supreme Court order. Those include involuntary mental health treatments, petitions for immediate funeral/burial arrangements, emergency Adult Protective Services and guardianship petitions, emergency petitions for conservatorships, protective orders for immediate pending property actions, emergency estate matters, requests for temporary restraining orders, and other emergency motions. All will be conducted remotely if possible, and all other probate matters are adjourned.

A press release from the Macomb County Public Works Office indicates that on March 18, county officials learned that an attorney who was working in a Macomb County Circuit Court room in Mount Clemens had tested positive for COVID-19.

“The attorney was in the court on March 16,” the release states. “Based on a risk assessment performed on this incident, and out of an abundance of caution, several Macomb County employees were recommended to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days.”

Macomb County’s review of the situation indicated that it does not appear that there was any prolonged exposure to any other employees, as explained in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“As this situation continues to evolve, we fully anticipate there will be more incidents in the workplace,” Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said. “We will continue to perform risk assessments to determine appropriate actions going forward.”

Dan Heaton, the Macomb County Public Works Office communications manager, said the individual who tested positive is a man who is not a county employee. Heaton did not know the age of the individual at press time.

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