Judge Christopher P. Yates, Michigan Court of Appeals
Hon. Christopher P. Yates was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals by Governor Gretchen Whitmer on March 16, 2022.
This interview was conducted when Judge Yates was a Kent County Circuit Court judge. Judge Yates was appointed to the Kent County Circuit Court in 2008 and has served in both the Criminal/Civil Division and the Family Division. He was assigned to run the court's specialized business docket in 2012. Judge Yates is the immediate past president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. Before his judgeship, he served as a law clerk to Chief Judge James P. Churchill of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and to Hon. Ralph B. Guy, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Judge Yates also has worked as a federal prosecutor in Detroit, as an attorney-advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC; as chief federal public defender for the Western District of Michigan; and as a partner in two private law firms.
What are the worst and best things a lawyer can do in your court?
The worst thing a lawyer can do is be rude to my staff in any way, including speaking over people in the courtroom. Some lawyers are determined to run over everyone they encounter, but talking over everyone is just not productive.
The best thing a lawyer can do is pay attention and respond appropriately. Lots of lawyers come in scripted, with PowerPoint presentations and their direct and cross-examinations all written out. But lawyers need to be flexible, as the terrain shifts constantly in court. The best use of a lawyer’s time is to show up and engage.
What role does your staff play?
I am very fortunate to have experienced staff who have been working with the court system for a long time. They can handle almost everything, so most inquiries go to them first. I have two scheduling clerks who also double as court reporters and handle half the docket each.
I have one law clerk whom I don’t keep for more than two years. It’s my philosophy that he or she will learn a great deal with me and then move on to further his or her legal career. My law clerk sets up and organizes motion day, writes all orders, and helps me prepare for motion call.
What should attorneys know about motion call and briefs?
Motion call is every Friday, and the times are staggered at 9, 10, 11, and 2. If a motion is really complicated, lawyers can ask for a special date. I start on time. My goal is to make sure no attorney has to wait for very long, which is why I have different motion times. Briefs are always required. If a lawyer does not file a brief in response to a motion, he or she is at a big disadvantage.
Motion hearings are interactive, much like appellate court hearings. I read all the briefs and do my own research. I have an idea about how I am going to rule, and I will ask questions to test legal theories or to clear up facts. Oral argument exists so the lawyers can hear what the judge is concerned about and then address those issues. Lawyers should be prepared to respond to my questions and not have a scripted argument that regurgitates what is in the briefs.
I write all of my opinions. I feel that as an appointed and elected official it is my duty and privilege. I am passionate about writing opinions, often interjecting humor, history, and other asides. Links to my opinions can be found on the Kent County Circuit Court’s Specialized Business Docket opinions webpage.
What happens at a settlement conference?
Eighty percent of my docket is nonjury, which means I am typically the trier of fact. For this reason I give all litigants the option of having their settlement conference with a different judge.
Clients must come to all settlement conferences in person. No exceptions. Court communications and notices make this perfectly clear. If a lawyer shows up without a client and claims to have settlement authority, there will be significant consequences. Parties may have a facilitative mediation in lieu of a settlement conference, but it has to be facilitative—not case evaluation or regular mediation.
How are trials scheduled?
Trials are scheduled only after the settlement conference has failed. I always try to be flexible on dates. Trials are much easier for the judge than the lawyers, so I try to work with the lawyers. If they want to schedule whole days or half days, I will accommodate that. If you have a vacation or some other issue, I will schedule the trial date around that.
What is the one thing you want lawyers to know about you?
The single aspect of my work that makes me the most uncomfortable is ex-parte communication. If both sides want to talk, great. I have so many conference calls that there is a dedicated line for me. Just call my staff and they will schedule a call. But please don’t try to communicate with me about your pending matter without the other side participating.