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Q&A with Joseph F. Burke, Chief Judge Pro Tempore, 15th Judicial District Court

By Matthew J. Franson posted 03-01-2023 08:56


Judge Burke

Joseph F. Burke has sat on the 15th Judicial District Court since February 15, 2012. He was appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court as Chief Judge effective January 1, 2016. He presides over general civil provider cases and drunk driving cases as well as the specialized Sobriety Court docket. Before becoming a judge, he worked in private practice and as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Washtenaw County. Judge Burke has served several local nonprofit organizations as a board member, including Neighborhood Senior Services, Humane Society of Huron Valley (past president), the Washtenaw Council on Alcoholism (past president), and Dawn Farm. He is the current president of the Washtenaw Community Concert Band.

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

Most hearings are held remotely. The court will send attorneys a link to log in online. When checking in, attorneys should send a chat message through Zoom to the court reporter when the case is ready to be called. The message must include the case name and number. I will wait until all parties are present before handling the specific matter. 

Final settlement conferences are handled in person, and attorneys should check in with the court staff in the courtroom. If an attorney wishes to adjourn a hearing, I require the request in writing 24 hours before the docket is called.

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

I handle exclusively no-fault matters, so all motions pertain to issues involving motor vehicle cases. I hear motions for summary disposition at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesdays. There is a maximum of sixty motions. Of those sixty, I will sort out cases that can be decided with a short opinion or read into the record and motions that will require argument. There are typically five to ten motions scheduled for argument.

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

Pretrial conferences are typically handled through email. If the case is not settled by the pretrial dates, then I will hold a final settlement conference the Friday preceding jury selection.

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

I have a court reporter, judicial coordinator, bailiff, and court administrator. My court administrators work diligently to find and organize the correct files for cases that will have hearings that week. In addition to pulling all of the cases, they will print out and mail court notices. We have been selected as one of the early courts to implement the MiFILE online system. We expect to go live with that in the spring of 2023.

What types of matters/motions are held via Zoom?

Final settlement conferences and the trials themselves are the only in-person events. All other hearings are held remotely. During the final settlement conference, attorneys should have jury instructions, exhibits, and final witness lists prepared. Principals or adjusters with settlement authority must be present.

What are some of the common mistakes/issues you see attorneys make?

I frequently see attorneys handling cases assigned to other attorneys in their firm who are not familiar with the facts of the case, have no settlement authority, and don't know the big issues in the case. This often leads to wasting the court's and the other attorney's time because nothing of substance can be accomplished. Scheduling the next hearing can also be difficult if the fill-in attorney does not have access to the other attorney's calendar. Furthermore, if there is a motion, the attorney may not have sufficient knowledge to answer my questions or not have a full understanding of what the motion is about, making it difficult for me to make an informed decision.

I also see attorneys overreaching in their motion practice. This can include asserting something that they cannot prove or asking for relief that is not supported by the facts of their case. Doing this impacts the attorney’s credibility and reputation in future cases. Sometimes it is okay to fall on your sword by telling me what the facts are even if it means it will weaken your case.

Do you have any advice for attorneys appearing remotely?

Use a set of good quality earphones and a reliably fast Internet connection. It is frustrating to not hear someone, especially during an oral argument.

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

I always know when someone really understands “the point” of the argument and issues present in a case or the subject of a motion. Being able to pinpoint the issues really helps me understand what needs to be decided and how it impacts the case.

Handling the no-fault docket, I see the same attorneys, and they see each other over and over. Learn how to deal with opposing counsel. You need to trust them and handle things professionally. Lastly, attorneys that are prepared always impress—read the law, and know the facts of the case.

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

Because my staff has to retrieve all the files, if you are coming to me for a discovery issue, it must be a significant issue that you were unable to resolve beforehand. My docket is very busy, so trying to minimize these types of issues is important.

Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom?

Generally, lawyers should know their audience and opposing counsel. It is important to work together, even when you disagree. Theatrics and drama are wasted on me, though I sometimes violate my own rule. Judge’s prerogative.

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

I’m impressed when an attorney can think on their feet. Also, I love to see newer lawyers that come to court and make their bones. It is normal to be nervous. Even seasoned litigators get nervous. It is always great to see a lawyer go from someone who is uncomfortable in court to becoming confident in their courtroom skills.

What is something interesting you do off the bench?

I play in the Washtenaw Community Concert Band. I renewed my relationship with the trumpet in my 30s and have continued to play. I recommend an extracurricular in your adult life. It will ground you and open you up to people who aren’t lawyers and judges.