Q&A with Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo, 15th Judicial District Court

By Noah C. Hagan posted 11-02-2020 10:41


Karen Quinlan Valvo was appointed to the 15th Judicial District Court bench by Governor Rick Snyder on January 5, 2016, and elected on November 8, 2016, to complete the term. She presides over criminal, traffic, and landlord-tenant cases and the specialized Mental Health and Veterans Treatment Court dockets.

We spoke to Judge Valvo in August of this year about changes in her courtroom in the wake of COVID-19.


What are the main procedural changes in your courtroom due to COVID-19?

The court is slowly reopening to the public, in accordance with a phased process established by the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). Different courts are in different phases of reopening, depending on the COVID situation in their local area. The Washtenaw County courts are currently in Phase 2, which means we are not open to the public at this time, but staff is reporting daily. Paperwork may be filed with the court by first-class mail or in drop boxes in the lobby. Payments of fines, costs, and restitution may be made by first-class mail, drop box, or online. We are conducting landlord-tenant hearings, civil cases, arraignments, pretrials, settlement conferences, motion hearings, and sentencing hearings using Zoom technology, providing access to the public by live streaming our Zoom hearings on YouTube. Nonjury trials for civil cases may be held via Zoom. Criminal defendants who agree to waive in-person nonjury trials may have their trial conducted using Zoom. No jury trials are being conducted at this time, but we will be resuming in-person jury trials when we move to Phase 3, which is also when the public is able to access the courthouse again.

All persons in the courtroom must wear masks and maintain social distance of at least six feet. We are limited to 10 persons in a courtroom at one time. Hand sanitizer is available in the courtrooms and courthouse public areas. Each space is disinfected after each use. Plexiglass shields have been erected strategically in public spaces and each courtroom to protect jurors, witnesses, and staff as we reopen to the public.

Are there any hearings in your court that require in-person attendance? If so, which ones?

Yes, criminal defendants are entitled to have in-person jury and nonjury trials and preliminary examinations. Defendants may waive that right and request a nonjury trial using Zoom. A few defendants have chosen virtual nonjury trials, and many have chosen to hold preliminary examinations virtually.

How is the court determining how to proceed in the future and ensure fairness to litigants?

The local courts are receiving guidance from the SCAO about how to implement new practices to ensure fairness to litigants, while implementing procedures to keep the public, court participants, and staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local courts must meet specific criteria to move from Phase 1 of the reopening process (courts were closed, only essential staff reported) to Phase 4 (when courts will fully reopen, likely when the pandemic is declared over). The courts monitor increases and decreases in the number of positive new cases reported by their local public health authority; increases and decreases in the percentage of positive tests in the local community; and the ability of local hospitals to handle increased cases in the event of an increase in COVID-19 cases. The information is reported to the SCAO, which determines whether the court may move to a more open phase. We are mindful that it is important for litigants to have their issues resolved as promptly as possible, and we apply safety standards to the proceedings accordingly.

We are scheduling criminal cases on a staggered docket each day, rather than ordering everyone on the docket to appear at 9:00 a.m., or 1:30 p.m., so defendants are not waiting on Zoom for long periods of time, and it has been very efficient. The feedback we have received about using Zoom technology for hearings has been quite positive thus far.

Who is required to attend the remote hearings? (Via Zoom?)

At this time, we are only conducting hearings via Zoom. Civil plaintiffs and defendants, prosecutors, police officers for cases involving traffic tickets, criminal defense attorneys, and criminal defendants all attend remote hearings via Zoom. In our court, probation officers attend sentencing hearings via Zoom.

The landlord-tenant docket resumed recently. The SCAO has established procedures for these cases. The rules for these cases are different, since the court does not always have email addresses or phone numbers for the tenants in order to notify them to appear via Zoom. The court includes Zoom hearing participation instructions with the initial service of the summons and complaint. Tenants are instructed to contact the court if they need more information and to provide their email address or phone number in order to receive the Zoom invitation. If they have been served and do not appear for the first hearing, the case is adjourned for one week and a notice for the tenant to appear in court in person is mailed to the tenant. If the tenant fails to appear for the second hearing, a default judgment may be entered.

 What are the most common mistakes that attorneys make in remote hearings?

 Attorneys are generally very well prepared when they appear for remote hearings in my courtroom. It is important for the attorneys to have consulted with each other before the hearing, and to have explained offers ahead of time to their clients. Occasionally, an attorney forgets to mute their microphone while attending to a separate matter. We are able to mute them when we realize it, but sometimes we (and everyone else) overhear information about another case—or the dog’s needs as many are still working from home.

Do you have any other advice for attorneys appearing remotely?

Attorneys should be sure their clients understand the hearing is still an appearance in a courtroom and should have them connect from a quiet, private space. There is an approximately 20-second lag time after someone speaks, and remembering that can help us not to interrupt each other. Attorneys planning to offer documents as exhibits should email them to opposing counsel in advance and know how to use the screen-sharing function. It helps to call in about 10 minutes early to test the equipment. If an attorney thinks their matter will take longer than normal, they should notify the court in advance so cases can be scheduled appropriately. It is difficult for many parties to use their cellular minutes to wait for a hearing that has been delayed.