What are the main procedural changes in your courtroom due to COVID-19?
We are only doing remote hearings now, but no trials. We use Zoom for most of our hearings and still do weekly block scheduling for our criminal cases. That means we have blocks of time for status conferences, which often result in plea agreements. We are a busy court, so we have many cases that are docketed for the same time. In criminal hearings, we use Zoom breakout rooms to enable defense attorneys to have privileged discussions with clients regarding plea offers. On the civil side, we are still hearing and deciding motions remotely in much the same way we did before, but with trials still being postponed.
How is the court determining how to proceed in the future and ensure fairness?
We were on track to begin holding in-person jury trials. We have set up our largest conference room in the courthouse and put a lot of time and effort taking into account social distancing, mask wearing, and everything else. Unfortunately, just a few days before we were scheduled to start, the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) and the Supreme Court Administrative Office (SCAO) informed us we could not proceed due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the county. So now we are just waiting for the numbers to flatten back out in order to restart the process. I have been told that KCHD is looking for 14 consecutive days of flat or decreasing infection rates before we can begin holding trials. For the time being we are still holding remote hearings via Zoom and will continue to do so until we hear differently. At some point we may able to employ some of the methods for remote trials currently being studied by the SCAO work group.
Who is required to attend the Zoom hearings?It depends on the case. In the criminal cases the defendant has a right to participate. If they are out on bond, we want them to fully participate through Zoom. For defendants in custody this can present some logistical problems because our jail has limited time when they can participate in a video conference. We try to work around their schedule in those cases. For civil cases we typically only require attorneys to be present for hearings absent some unique circumstances.
What are the most common mistakes attorneys make on Zoom hearings?
Attorneys have to remember that these are actual court hearings and to dress appropriately. This has nothing to do with any sort of disrespect for me personally, but an attorney’s appearance reflects their attitude toward these proceedings, which have real impact on people's lives. This can affect how you come across to your client as well. I expect most attorneys do in fact take these hearings very seriously, and it is important to remember that appearances matter in that regard.
Another mistake I see attorneys making is talking over each other. I ask people at the beginning of a hearing to wait until whoever is speaking is finished before they begin talking. It can be tough for attorneys to wait, especially when they have clients who want to hear them talk, but it can create a logistical nightmare.
Lastly, please make sure you are on time for the hearings. Everyone is under a lot of stress right now, and having to wait for someone else can be especially difficult. Zoom hearings are new for everyone, and as we work on figuring it out, we ask attorneys to be on time and to have spoken to their client ahead of time so we can avoid using the breakout rooms (as discussed below).
So please be on time, don’t talk over each other, and avoid the Tigers jersey.
Do you have any other advice for attorneys appearing remotely?
One issue we have run into is using breakout rooms during criminal hearings. If an attorney has to talk to their client in a breakout room, we are happy to oblige. However, it also means that everyone else on the docket has to wait until that meeting is finished. We are happy to allow as much time as needed to discuss matters with your client, but it helps if after five minutes you can give the court an update on whether you need more time or are almost finished. This helps us manage a busy docket, which can be even more complicated over Zoom.
Have you had to make any other changes due to the pandemic?
I have actually been coming to the office every single day from the very beginning. When the initial stay-at-home orders were issued, I was careful to come in for limited hours and my staff mostly worked remotely. Part of this is due to all of the emergency motions for early release from jail and to reduce bond of people in pretrial detention. These motions are typically filed because there are legitimate concerns by inmates who are confined and vulnerable to COVID-19. I wanted to get those decisions out as quickly as I could, especially in cases in which a person was in partial custody and is presumed innocent. Of course I consider why the bond was high in the first place, whether it alleges a violent crime, or whether there is a history of failure to appear. None of that stuff goes away, but I am willing to spend the time to look carefully at each case to see if it's somebody that is lower risk. Additionally, we always ask for some documentation of medical conditions that will make a person more vulnerable to infection or complications. I’ve got a great staff working very hard at home, but for me working it’s easier being in the courthouse where I can review and sign orders.
Read Judge Denenfeld’s original Q&A from 2018 here, when he was assigned to the Family Division of the Circuit Court.
Judge Denenfeld took the bench on August 10, 2009. He received his BA from Western Michigan University and his JD from the University of Cincinnati. Before taking the bench, Judge Denenfeld was a partner in the law firm Yates, LaGrand & Denenfeld, PLLC. Prior to that, he was the senior litigator with the Federal Public Defender office in Grand Rapids and was the chief of the special litigation division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. For nearly 10 years, he was a civil rights and civil liberties attorney in Detroit. Judge Denenfeld has also spent considerable time working on the rule of law in several former Soviet republics. Judge Denenfeld is assigned to the Civil/Criminal Division of the Circuit Court.