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Q&A with Judge Celeste Bell, Judge of the 7th Circuit Court

By Jeff Burtka posted 12-01-2022 08:25


Hon. Celeste Bell was appointed to the 7th Circuit Court bench to fill a vacancy in 2018 and was elected to a full term that November. She currently serves on the court’s Civil-Criminal Division. Before becoming a judge, she worked as a staff attorney with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, deputy city attorney for the city of San Francisco, assistant corporation counsel for Genesee County, and chief assistant prosecuting attorney in the civil division of Genesee County’s prosecuting attorney's office.

When is your motion call? Are there a maximum number of motions heard during motion call?

Monday is motion day for my court. Attorneys should check in with my law clerk. Civil motions, including summary disposition motions, start at 2:00 p.m. Criminal motions are scheduled to start at 3:00 p.m. The civil call regularly bleeds into the criminal call. Summary disposition motions are limited to three per date, and a date must be obtained in advance from my office. If the docket appears to be too large for the afternoon, I will sometimes, before the scheduled day, move the motions that will be more time-consuming to a day later the same week at the parties’ convenience.

How do you prefer attorneys handle proposed or stipulated orders?

Orders do not have to be submitted before oral argument. There are no court-supplied computers or printers available to litigants in the courtroom so, I do not expect orders to be drafted there. Stipulated orders may be mailed (or emailed if they do not expect a true copy in return) directly to my office.

Who makes up your judicial staff and what roles do they play?

The 7th Circuit funds an administrative secretary and a judicial advisory assistant for each judge. Both answer the phone and can respond to questions. My secretary is in charge of scheduling and calendaring events.

My law clerk performs a review and research for Monday’s civil motion call and certain criminal motions, and is the bailiff in the courtroom. The law clerk also operates the court recording system and is the "Keeper of Zoom."

I think of my office as a tripod. I can, and have, run the office with one staff person, but balancing on two legs (remember this is a tripod analogy) is exhausting, inefficient, and takes effort that could be directed elsewhere. I am a better judge with my staff.

What types of pretrial conferences do you hold and what happens at them?

I hold criminal pretrial conferences, where the defendant is present, to discuss the status of things like discovery, potential motions, and resolution, and what the court can do to expedite the matter. I also hold status conferences for both criminal and civil matters to discuss the same topics; the defendant or parties are not required to be present at these meetings. A week to two weeks before a criminal trial, I hold a final pretrial to finalize jury instructions and any outstanding motions. Finally, I hold settlement conferences in civil cases where all parties and persons with financial authority must be present or, at least, a phone call away.

How are you using Zoom in your courtroom?

I reluctantly still use Zoom. On most civil motions, I permit the parties to decide whether they wish to participate by Zoom or in person. I require that all parties pick a single format because of the technical issues that can occur when one party is in the courtroom and the other party is participating via Zoom. I bring in the parties for the case being called only; other parties who call in for the motion call remain in the waiting room until their case is called, which is different from everyone sitting live in the gallery. I admit that’s just too many heads for me on the big screen.

I also regularly use Zoom for MDOC inmates because they usually prefer to remain at their prison rather than coming to county jail.

What are some of the common mistakes/issues you see attorneys making when attending court via Zoom?

Common mistakes include:

  • Terrible internet connections
  • Not knowing how to use controls
  • Not being able to control audio or video
  • Talking over each other
  • Not paying attention to computer screens while audio is muted and missing case call
  • Not positioning their camera toward the computer screen

I understand that Zoom is still new, and it’s annoying to me and many of my generation. But given the time we’ve been using these methods, there is no excuse for not having basic Zoom competence. Consult a staff member, or perhaps take a Zoom class, if you’re having trouble figuring it out.

Do you have any advice for attorneys appearing remotely?

  • Check your connection before your hearing starts. This may take two people, but it will alleviate the frustration caused by the court being unable to hear two-thirds of what you’re saying.
  • Put your name and the case name or number on your id tag in before you call in. If we do not recognize your name, we have no idea which case you are appearing on. Without you identifying yourself and your case, we must search to connect your name to a case file.
  • Keep an eye on your computer screen. I’ve put cases back in the waiting room due to attorneys who are turned away from the screen with their audio off while I and opposing counsel try to get their attention.
  • Finally, do not call the office at 2:05 to say you are still waiting to be let in for the 2:00 call. When you were here in person, you knew what the docket looked like and that others might be called before you. This also applies to Zoom. I realize this may just be a me problem given how I bring in parties (see above), but you might want to check the court’s docket to see what you and the court are up against.

What are some components of an argument (either in a brief or oral argument) that you find compelling or persuasive?

If there is an applicable standard the court must apply, state it early. Then argue those factors/elements in the context of your case. Prioritize; don’t hide the lead.

What procedural issues/disputes should be worked out between the parties before involving you?

Please do not make me order the sequence of depositions. I’ve had to search for my eyeballs after they’ve rolled out of my head on these.

Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom?

Not knowing the applicable court rules or legal standard. Not listening when the court addresses a specific party and they respond instead.

What do you think is the most commonly misinterpreted court rule or rule of evidence?

A misinterpreted court rule would be judge’s copies, which are supposed to be delivered to the judge’s office directly. See MCR 2.119(A)(2)(d), which states, “a copy of a motion or response (including brief) filed under this rule must be provided by counsel to the office of the judge hearing the motion.” Filing with the clerk does not ensure that the judge gets it on time.

A misinterpreted rule of evidence would be refreshing recollection. MRE 612. Attorneys should tell witnesses, “Read it silently, then give it back to me.”

What is an example of a time a lawyer impressed you?

When my assigned prosecutor was more interested in a defendant receiving treatment than sending him to prison. Attorneys and judges should not give up their humanity; compassion is one of the tools at our disposal.

What is something interesting you do off the bench?

Cooking, baking, and dog training. I currently have three poorly trained dogs: a Doberman, a Boxer, and an Icelandic Sheepdog who has taught the Doberman that flying objects such as birds and planes are not allowed to fly above or near their yard.

Is there anything else you would like Michigan lawyers to know?

That I am still very thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I learn something new every day I’m on the bench.

That I respect their time and commitment to providing justice.

That they should never stop reading and learning the law.