The Michigan Supreme Court’s chief justice told a congressional panel Thursday technology brought “much-needed change” to the state’s justice system after months of a virtual courtroom trial period.
In her testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed for more change in three months than in the past three decades.
“This pandemic was not the disruption that any of us wanted, but it may be the disruption we needed to transform our judiciary into a more accessibly, transparent, efficient and customer-friendly branch of government,” McCormack said Thursday morning, June 25, while testifying virtually.
“Now, seeing the benefits of innovation, we have a unique opportunity to create long-term and much-needed change for our justice system.”
Michigan’s court systems have held more than 50,000 Zoom hearings and are approaching 350,000 hours of online proceedings since April 1, according to McCormack.
By allowing defendants in criminal and civil cases to have their cases heard virtually, the chief justice said Michigan’s legal system has removed barriers including transportation, parking, disabilities, child care, and job responsibilities.
Additionally, McCormack said virtual hearings have proven to be less intimidating for parties who appear without lawyers.
“There’s something about the equalizing nature of all the Zoom boxes being the same size that makes people feel more heard and more respected,” she said. “Maybe it’s just less intimidating.”
The move to virtual courtrooms was made in March when the state temporarily halted many businesses and activities not deemed essential to maintaining and protecting life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, McCormack said her administrative team invested in outfitting every courtroom in the state with a video conferencing system and every judge with a Zoom license.
To maintain public access, many court hearings are livestreamed on Youtube, and the state has created a virtual courtroom directory to allow people to watch any judge in the state. McCormack testified that the resource has been used more than 25,000 times in the past month alone, including one that attracted more than 8,000 viewers at one time.
Michigan’s chief justice also summarized the state’s online dispute resolution system, which allows individuals to work through a dispute without going to court, and a pilot test messaging system that notifies the public of court events and payments.
“Looking to the future, we cannot retool old ways to get people back into courthouses where access to justice is an ongoing problem,” she said. “Instead, we must focus our resources on bringing justice to people where they live and where they work. We must rebuild what we do from the ground up and create a 21st century justice system.”
McCormack was one of three state chief justices who were asked to testify during the hearing. Asked if she’d support livestreaming proceedings by the U.S. Supreme Court and appeals court, she said she would, noting the importance of transparency in the judicial system.
The chief justice did note that there are “definitely areas of conflicting values that will need further discussion.” Some proceedings aren’t appropriate for remote platforms, such as witnesses testifying in a criminal trial, she said.
However, many of the high-volume docket hearings including debt collection, evictions and other district court cases lend themselves to virtual platforms and McCormack said having a virtual option has already proven to increase participation.
The state is working on building best practices in this avenue, which members of the federal subcommittee said would be useful.
Other participants in Thursday’s session voiced concerns about areas that don’t have the same access to technology and internet connection. McCormack said she’d like for it to be an option in cases where appropriate.