Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Photo via Michigan Courts.
Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. Photo via Michigan Courts.

Michigan’s Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack is modernizing courts with things like online dispute resolution and livestreamed trials.

LANSING, MI — There will be ways we never return to what life was before the novel coronavirus pandemic. Often, like making absentee voting more accessible for the blind, the pandemic laid bare problems that existed and made changes to resolve those problems necessary. 

One area where this has happened is Michigan’s judiciary. 

Writing for the Hill, Michigan’s Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack said the pandemic has government leaders asking themselves hard questions about the systems we rely on every day.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the lack of technology and the archaic rules and processes embedded in our justice system,” she said. “Why is our system of justice held together with the threads of 20th century technology and 19th century processes? Also, what new practices have we developed in response to this crisis that might serve us well after we recover?”

As part of their response to the pandemic, McCormack and Michigan’s courts have pioneered a new level of transparency — livestreaming court proceedings. Courts have always been open to the public, with rare exceptions, in America. Livestreaming hearings modernizes that practice and makes it still possible for the public to attend a trial while in-person attendance to courtrooms remains risky.

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The state’s new courtroom directory has been used to view trials 25,000 times in June. One trial had 8,000 viewers, according to McCormack. 

There have been other ways the courtroom has moved online during the pandemic. McCormack testified to Congress that between the start of April and the end of June, Michigan’s court systems have held more than 50,000 Zoom hearings and nearly 350,000 hours of online proceedings. 

Beyond just preventing the spread of the coronavirus, McCormack said those online proceedings made it possible for litigants in both civil and criminal cases to have their day in court without worrying as heavily about transportation, parking, disabilities, child care, and job responsibilities.

And for those who go to trial without a lawyer, McCormack testified the online hearings have proven less intimidating. 

“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 told Congress. “Maybe it’s just less intimidating.”

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Michigan was able to adapt so fluidly to the social distancing approach to court proceedings because as Chief Justice, McCormack said she invested in getting every courtroom in Michigan compatible with video conferencing and getting every judge a Zoom license. 

McCormack is also piloting a system of text alerts to remind Michiganders of upcoming court appearances or fines to be paid. Michigan also offers online legal resources and, thanks to its first-in-the-nation digital dispute resolution system MI Resolve, Michigan courts are empowering people to settle conflicts without lawyers.  

McCormack also encourages the automation of certain routine legal processes, like cleaning criminal records when an individual has remained crime-free for a set time. Such Clean Slate legislation already exists in Utah and Pennsylvania. 

“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.”

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McCormack acknowledged that a growing technological divide exists in Michigan and that not all trials and proceedings would be appropriate to livestream on YouTube, but she wants to keep the option available long after the pandemic is managed. 

“Let’s make sure that the resources we infuse into the system are not just temporary patches,” McCormack wrote. “We have a chance to rebuild what we do from the ground up. Let’s create a 21st century criminal justice system that is effective, transparent, efficient and fair.”