ALPENA — Court shouldn’t be a mystery, Northeast Michigan judges say.
The virus that caused widespread closures of business and made people stay at home also closed Michigan courts, forcing them into a new world of technology to continue operating and to stay transparent to the public.
Virtual court hearings in much of the state have gone online, available via YouTube livestream to anyone who wants to watch them.
The result, said Judge Ed Black of the 26th Circuit Court, is a court that is, in many ways, much more open to the public than ever before, despite physical courtroom doors being shut.
The use of videoconference software to conduct hearings has led to fewer in-chamber, off-the-record conferences between attorneys and judges, making more of what goes on in a court open to the public, Black said.
“And that’s the way it should be,” he said.
Many people — most of whom don’t have time to sit in courtrooms — don’t know much about the judicial system, Black said, but now, with courts forced to broadcast hearings online, the public has courtrooms at their fingertips.
As courts gradually reopen physically to the public and move toward conducting trials, courtrooms won’t be big enough to hold onlookers while the court follows social distancing guidelines, Black said.
He can’t yet say definitely what the future will hold for Alpena courts, but he hopes all possible hearings and court business will continue to be livestreamed even after courtrooms reopen.
Evidentiary hearings — in which testimony about a case is taken, and which cause complications regarding sequestering of witnesses if the hearing is freely broadcast — are not conducive to livestreaming, Back said.
Some sensitive hearings, such as those concerning juveniles or divorces, aren’t necessarily appropriate to livestream if not necessary for transparency.
While the court has always been open to the public, until now, it wasn’t broadcast to the public, Black said, noting that the goal of livestreaming is not to air people’s personal struggles.
“That’s not part of the court process, either,” Black said. “It’s not supposed to be there for embarrassment purposes.”
Judges can restrict public access to proceedings if they feel the case requires it, but courts are by law supposed to err on the side of transparency so the public can judge for themselves if justice is being fairly doled out.
In Presque Isle County, 53rd Circuit Court Judge Aaron Gauthier believes nobody’s worst moment should be memorialized forever.
Still, he believes the benefits of making courts extremely accessible outweigh the potential downside of a wider audience for court hearings made possible through livestreaming.
Only a handful of people watch his court hearings live, he said, but the videos — which he leaves posted on his court YouTube page for days after a hearing day — often receive hundreds of later views.
One of only a few judges in the state to do so, Gauthier leaves the videos online because he feels they play an important role, not only in fulfilling the requirements of court transparency and accountability but also in educating the public about their courts.
The interest in the judicial system is higher than ever before, he thinks, generating conversions and questions arising from a new audience having access to virtual courtrooms.
Some viewers of the videos, he knows, may not watch with the purest of intentions, but, overall, he thinks they have been a help and a convenience — especially to crime victims, who can more easily keep up with the case with which they are involved.
In another move strengthening the transparency of courts, the public can, as of May 1, take pictures of court documents, something that has until now been prohibited in Michigan. The Michigan Supreme Court also now allows the public to bring cell phones and laptop computers into courtrooms.
For now, Gauthier doesn’t know if his courtrooms will continue livestreaming hearings. Around the state, other judges are already discontinuing the practice, he said, and some never started it, instead requiring interested parties to come to the courthouse and sit through a hearing in person, despite the pandemic.
In several local courtrooms, some hearings are being held in person now, and more will be conducted in the courtroom in upcoming months. Several trials planned locally will involve jury selection and testimony given in a courtroom or other setting instead of virtually.
As some aspects of court revert to what they once were, the good that came from the push to technology should stay in place for the sake of the public, judges say.
“It’s their court,” Gauthier said.