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Q & A with Judge Curtis J. Bell, 9th Circuit Court (Kalamazoo County)

By Katy P. Sanchez posted 01-02-2024 08:34

  

Curtis J. Bell is the chief judge of the Kalamazoo County Probate Court and 9th Circuit Court in Michigan. He was appointed to the court by former Governor Jennifer Granholm on February 8, 2005, and assumed office on February 25, 2008. He has served as chief judge of the court since 2014.

For attorneys who have never been to your court, what is your check-in process?

It depends on whether the hearing is in person or virtual. If it is an in-person hearing, an attorney should go directly into the courtroom where they can either come to the judicial aide’s desk or the judicial aide will inquire of those present prior to the hearing. Should the hearing be virtual, my judicial aide will inquire in advance of any hearing to be assured all parties are present.

We still use the Zoom platform for all hearings except contested evidentiary hearings. The general rule requiring in-person testimony may exclude professional nonlitigant testimony and persons who are outside of a reasonable travel distance. Under such circumstances, a stipulation or motion should be made in advance of the hearing or trial to seek such relief.

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

We do not have a conventional “motion call.” We provide specific time slots for each hearing. Rarely, there may be the need to have two hearings in one time slot. There are noted exceptions for matters concerning Petition for Name Change and Application to Set Aside Conviction, which generally involve self-represented litigants.

Should proposed orders be submitted to the clerk before argument? Do you expect orders to be drafted in court and, if so, are there computers for drafting them?

A proposed order may be attached to the motion as an exhibit. Additionally, for virtual hearings, they may be sent directly to my judicial aide. For in-person hearings, proposed orders should also be brought to the court. I do not expect orders to be drafted in court. There are no computers or printers in the courtroom. However, if there is a proposed order, I will direct that minor modifications be completed while the parties are present so that it may be executed forthwith.

How should stipulated orders be submitted?

All filings must be submitted to the court clerk’s office either in person, via mail (USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc.), and/or electronically (civilcircuitcourt@kalcounty.com). When filings are provided electronically, do not send a hard copy to the court unless requested. When filings are provided via hard copy, please only provide one copy for the court to docket into the case as this court does not provide time-stamped copies. A judge’s copy is required for all motion filings. It is critical that all litigants (including self-represented) sign off on any stipulated order, not only those to whom the specific issue may apply.

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

We have two court services specialists. Their tasks include greeting, assisting, and/or redirecting the customers and attorneys in person and/or via phone; accepting, reviewing, and docketing/returning filings; processing new civil and appeal cases; processing payments on motions for civil cases and restitution for criminal cases; managing and scheduling hearings on the judge’s docket; reviewing cases to ensure accuracy of filings and time management; performing tasks related to ADR; performing tasks related to jury services; assisting judges as needed; assisting district court staff; assisting other court service specialists, trial court clerks, the PPO coordinator, judicial aides, and staff attorneys, as well as all staff of the circuit court; and assisting with staff from other courts and agencies throughout our state and country as needed.

We also have one personal protection order coordinator. Their tasks include interviewing petitioners to assess their needs, assists with processing paperwork, and they will oftentimes refer petitioners to local agencies for assistance.

The staff attorney’s tasks include legal research, legal writing, tracking appeals, and bailiffing jurors for trial. The staff attorney will also hold off-the-record status conferences.

The judicial aide assists during court proceedings and manages the functions of the judge’s office.

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

All of our contested matters go through an early scheduling conference. The early scheduling conference form is sent out after all defendants file the Defendant’s Answer to the Complaint form. The plaintiff’s counsel is responsible for reaching out to opposing counsel to complete the document and submit it to the court at least one week in advance of the early scheduling conference. The document provides clear guidelines under which the case will be adjudicated. Upon request, additional status conferences may be held; however, that is not the norm. Either the Wednesday or Friday in advance of the trial date is when a final settlement conference is held.

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

A common mistake is interrupting either opposing counsel or interrupting the court. Also, there seems to be an occasional failure to follow proper protocol when presenting argument. A hearing should not be treated like a conversation.

Do you have any advice for attorneys appearing remotely?

The most significant difficulty in remote appearances is the failure of the Internet connection to provide a strong signal. Not only does a poor connection create difficulty for the court and the record, but it also results in challenges for the transcriptionist. It is worth the extra effort to secure appropriate Internet services with a functional up-to-date communication device.

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

All facets of an attorney’s presentation concerning their argument are important. An attorney should be confident that the court has reviewed the material, understands the issues, and is willing to listen with an open mind to the arguments presented. Though it is true that after review of the motion, responses, and briefs, a judge may have a good idea of which argument is stronger, the decision is not a forgone conclusion. Even in light of strong briefing to the contrary, I can personally indicate that I have been swayed by oral argument. It is important to provide a solid performance for all aspects of litigation.

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

Generally speaking, the courts are here to resolve problems that individuals, businesses, and government cannot resolve on their own. Whether that is because of their unwillingness to act or because of the legal restraints concerning the remedy that is being sought. The early scheduling order is designed to narrow the issues of law and of fact as to be judicious with the court’s, and any potential juror’s, time.

Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom?

I do not think that there are many common mistakes, but I would say that there are things that one should be mindful of that are common to all litigants. Please be respectful to court staff, not only in the presence of the judge but also during any interaction that you have with them. They, like the judge, are here to serve the public. Their work is no less taxing, and they deserve the same level of respect. Additionally, it is distracting to the cause of the claim when attorneys are unnecessarily oppositional (rude) to opposing counsel. Though our adversary system is designed to test claims through the heated flames of the cauldron, it is not necessary that the opposing side be put through that same fire.

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

MRE 702.

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

I am most impressed when a lawyer can artfully disagree without being disagreeable.

What is something interesting you do off the bench?

As our home’s primary source of heating is wood generated, I spend many days in the woods cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood.

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

Please be punctual. With rare exception, your hearing will start at the prescribed time.

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