State eyes revamp of court system

Proposed council would be charged with developing a statewide plan to improve judiciary.

The state’s judiciary branch is assembling a diverse team of professionals to craft a plan for the legal system to operate in unison.

There are more than 200 courts across Michigan, including its Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, District Courts and Probate Courts, among others.

Although stakeholders have not yet been named to the team that will be called the Michigan Judicial Council, there will be 29 members and they will include judges, administrators, attorneys, county clerks, and members of the public who are not attorneys to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion.

The judges will be nominated by various associations including the Michigan Judges Association, Michigan Probate Judges Association, Michigan District Judges Association, Association of Black Judges of Michigan and Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum. Ultimately, the Michigan Supreme Court will choose the members in the near future because the deadline for interested applicants was May 7.

They will be tasked with developing a strategic plan for the improvement of Michigan’s judiciary. According to the Supreme Court, Michigan’s legal system operates as a non-unified trial court system with varying and complicated funding structures, a multitude of case management systems and many local court rules across the state.

“With nearly 600 judges, 242 courts, and more than 160 funding units, our judiciary is decentralized, complicated and difficult to coordinate,” said Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack. “The Judicial Council will play a critical role in consulting the public, bringing together a wide range of viewpoints and developing a path forward that maintains judicial independence, expands access to justice, strengthens transparency and increases efficiency.”

Over the past few years, leaders in Michigan’s judicial system have formed numerous groups and have been working on various initiatives to address the needs of the court including establishing the Justice for All Task Force, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, MiFILE, MI-Resolve, Trial Court Funding Commission, Virtual Courtrooms and Problem-Solving Courts.

However, Judge Terence J. “T.J.” Ackert of Kent County Probate Court said they have a long way to go.

“The MiFILE system, which has been developed and allows for an electronic filing system for filing and serving court documents online, is an area — electronic filing — the courts are moving toward, but we have a long way to go,” he said. “Currently, Kent County does not have an electronic filing system, except for the Specialized Business Docket, so we need to work on that issue.

“The Trial Court Funding Commission was established some time ago — within the last 10 years — and that is creating a stable funding system. Right now, 26.2% of trial court funding in Michigan is generated by the trial courts, $418 million of which comes directly from criminal defendants. That process, the courts have determined is unsustainable over the long term, so we are looking at ways to enhance and improve the funding system.”

Ackert said they have virtual courtrooms that were established because of COVID-19 and as of February they have logged more than 2 million hours of Michigan virtual court hearings by Zoom. They now are looking at how to expand that technological access.

“One of the issues is, how do we make the trial courts across Michigan unified in the technology that is needed to access the courts virtually so that there is sufficient connectivity with the court and that the technological equipment is consistent throughout the courts and that we lobby the state to continue its efforts to expand the Wi-Fi and internet connectivity and capabilities throughout the state,” he said. “That is extremely important because in the Zoom hearings more rural areas of the state have more difficulty ensuring that its connectivity is stable because if it is not stable you cannot have hearings.”

Although leaders in the legal system already are looking at those issues, Ackert said the Michigan Judicial Council will be looking at having a long-term strategic planning process. Ackert said he anticipates the council will have many subcommittees working on different issues, which may include initiatives that already are in the works such as funding, but there are many more problems that need to be addressed through planning.

Chief Judge Susan Dobrich of the Cass County Probate Court said this is not something new. She said other states such as Minnesota, Arizona and Illinois have established strategic planning for their court systems, but one of the differences is the approach. Michigan is doing it by a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach. 

Ackert said the goal is to develop a strategic plan over a 12-month period and have that plan implemented and updated throughout the years.

“From my perspective, I believe the courts need to conduct themselves much the same way as the private marketplace,” he said. “Companies and organizations all do strategic planning, and the strategic planning is set to give stability and continuity in the operation of the company or the organization so that if there are changes in executives or leadership, then there still remains continuity and stability in the operation of the company or the organization. That is what we are looking at for our courts.”

For example, a change in Supreme Court chief justice should not upset the whole system.

“We still need to have continuity and stability in the strategic planning of the court. We don’t want to have a situation where when we have new justices and elected officials come into the court system, they decide, ‘Well, I am not going to continue that program anymore, I am going to start these programs,’” he said. “While they can still be interested in initiating new programs, we don’t want to have programs that the judicial system believes are beneficial to stop. They need to continue, and they need to address needs and address concerns into the future. That is what the public needs from our court system and we are going to give it to them.”

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