ST. JOSEPH — If you asked Judge Mabel Mayfield in February what she planned to do first as Berrien County Trial Court’s new chief judge, she would not have said she’ll be navigating the courts through a pandemic.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit full-speed in March, keeping the justice system moving became her biggest challenge.
“The Michigan Supreme Court recognized the impact this was going to have,” Mayfield said. “We’ve had a lot of bumps along the way, because the guidance changes every day, sometimes several times a day.”
Trial Court Administrator Carrie Smietanka-Haney said trials came to a halt in March, and resumed in August, with social distancing, plexiglass installed in jury boxes, and a mask mandate in place.
“We held about 10 trials, then they stopped again in October,” Smietanka-Haney said.
The state Supreme Court has now ordered all in-person jury trials on hold at least through January.
“Yes, there’s a backlog. But when we get back to normal, we could feasibly conduct several trials a week,” Smietanka-Haney said.
She said in normal times, the county averages one trial a week.
Mayfield said court employees adapted “quickly and well” as orders and guidance came at them from several different directions.
She said throughout the county, there has been collaboration among judges, lawyers and community partners to keep the system moving, although in a much different way.
Mayfield said judges are setting lower bonds so more people can afford to bond out of jail, more court appearance tickets are being issued rather than taking people to jail for non-violent crimes, and more people are being released on tether.
Defendants are being arraigned via Zoom, either from their homes, from lawyer’s offices or from places like churches that have offered use of their Internet services for defendants who do not have Internet at home.
“Everyone has been flexible and our staff has been really good at rolling with the punches,” Smietanka-Haney said. “Everybody has concerns, but I have 100 percent confidence that we’ll get through. We’ve learned a lot and have been able to manage.”
While many court appearances are being conducted virtually, jury trials are not.
“You have to be able to have a clear transcript and a good record, and that’s been a challenge,” Mayfield said.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors say it’s important to conduct jury selection in person because lawyers observe things such as body language.
Berrien County’s Chief Public Defender Paul Jancha Jr. said the pandemic has been tough on his office, the prosecutor’s office, clients and alleged victims.
“But there’s been a very significant collaborative effort to get folks released from jail, whether it’s a bond reduction or early release on a sentence,” Jancha said. “There has absolutely been a collaborative effort. We’re arguing for lower bonds and the courts are receptive to that.”
Jancha acknowledged that for people facing the most serious charges, who cannot be released while awaiting trial, “it’s a very difficult situation.”
He said those cases will be first up when the court can resume trials.
“Yes, there are some folks facing very serious charges who are waiting a long time in jail. I have several of them. I tell them we don’t want to have these trials when jurors might feel uncomfortable and worried about becoming sick,” he said. “We want jurors to be able to listen to the evidence without being distracted. Our clients understand that.”
Barry Conybeare, owner of Conybeare Law Office in St. Joseph, said if he’d been told in February that most of his staff of 13 would be working from home and handling cases remotely, “I would not have believed it.”
However, Conybeare said, “we’ve been able to make the transition and we’ve been able to do it quite well. It is all being handled darn smoothly and efficiently, and I’m proud of everyone involved.”
A personal injury law firm, Conybeare Law Office has 13 employees, including six lawyers.
“All our depositions are virtual. I haven’t been in a courtroom physically since March,” Conybeare said. “We’re able to Zoom with clients, other lawyers and with the court. Things are running more on time by Zoom. There’s less waiting around, and we’re more efficient with our time.”
Conybeare said the transition has been “interesting.”
“I think this transition will accelerate people’s acceptance of technology and more things will continue to be virtual,” he said.
Conybeare said most civil cases are resolved before they go to trial. But with trials on hold, “My greatest worry is our ability to get to a settlement, because a settlement has to happen before the trial date. Now, with no trial dates, there’s no deadline, and that can be a problem.”
And once the pandemic is over and the courts are back to full capacity, Conybeare said, health concerns might linger and “I’m worried about what trials might look like. It might affect people’s ability to listen and argue persuasively.”
Mayfield said the court will never go completely back to the way it was, and she believes that’s a good thing.
“We’ve learned so much from the adjustments and how we’ve had to adapt. For the last two years we’ve done strategic planning for increasing our use of technology for many services,” she said.
“We’ve been forced to try these things, and there’s a benefit for some people, such as those who don’t have transportation. We’ve become more efficient in so many areas, why would we go back to the way we were?”