Q & A with Judge Kathleen M. Brickley, Van Buren County Circuit Court

By Rachael M. Sedlacek posted 05-03-2019 10:40


Chief Judge Kathleen M. Brickley

Van Buren County Circuit Court

Judge Kathleen Brickley is the chief judge of the Van Buren County courts. She was appointed to the 36th Circuit Court bench in 2012 and elected that year to a six-year term, serving in the criminal division. From 1990 to 2012, Judge Brickley was in private practice in Kalamazoo. She is a member of the State Bar of Michigan, chair of the Van Buren Community Corrections Advisory Board, cochair of the Michigan Judges Association Criminal Committee, and a member of the Michigan Judicial Institute Academic Advisory Committee, the Michigan Drug Treatment Court Advisory Committee and Policy Council, the Restorative Justice Committee, the Michigan Model Criminal Law Jury Instructions Committee, and the Substance Abuse Task Force. Judge Brickley also presides over the Van Buren County Female Drug Treatment/Family Treatment Court and the Swift and Sure Sanctions Probation Program.

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

My docket is felony criminal. For routine motions that are estimated to be 15 minutes or less, such as bond modification or discovery issues, my motion call day is Monday. For more extensive motions, or if an attorney is unable to attend on a Monday, we are flexible on scheduling and will find a date and time that works with all. We do not generally have a maximum number of motions we will hear on a Monday. The number of sentencings and pretrials on any given day affects how many other matters I will hear.

Do you have any particular briefing requirements? What sort of arguments in a brief do you find compelling?

My briefing requirements mimic the court rules. I find compelling any arguments that are logically presented and supported by legal authority. In this, I am interested in authority specific to your issues. Generically mentioning the constitution, for example, does not persuade me that you have thoroughly researched the issue and that you have legal support for it. I am also not swayed by arguments anchored in themes of “because we want it” or “another judge did it this way” or “it seems like the right thing to do.” Early on in a brief a judge discerns how much effort an attorney has put into his or her cause. A brief quickly gains credibility when it reveals that the attorney has fully researched the issue and provided the germane authority. 

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

MRE 801 on hearsay. When I get a hearsay objection, the proponent of the evidence often looks first to the exceptions under MRE 803 and 804. I would suggest that the proponent instead look initially to MRE 801 to determine whether the evidence is hearsay in the first place. For example, many statements are not assertions, nor are they offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted. In these instances, begin by explaining why the statement is not an assertion or by providing a valid nonhearsay reason for the statement’s introduction. MRE 801(d) also offers opportunity for statements to circumvent the hearsay prohibitions. Anticipate your hearsay objections prior to trial and, where appropriate, begin your colloquy explaining why the statement is not hearsay. If that avenue is unsuccessful, then move on to the exceptions. 

Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom? 

In the criminal arena, I most often see missteps with sentencing issues. Attorneys will sometimes rely on the opponent’s calculation of the sentence guidelines when engaging in plea negotiations. Attorneys should independently calculate guidelines prior to engaging in meaningful plea negotiations. As well, attorneys should be familiar not only with the guidelines but with the appellate decisions interpreting those guidelines. It is awkward for everyone at a sentence hearing when an attorney misses an improperly scored guideline to the detriment of the client—triggering the judge to have to raise the issue. Finally, attorneys will sometimes make the mistake of arguing for a deviation from the guidelines without providing the court with any legal reason for the deviation. Even though the guidelines are advisory, courts are obliged to make a record supporting the deviation and the extent of it. Know the law in this regard and provide the court with proper support to increase the odds of your request’s being honored. 

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

My judicial assistant serves as a legal secretary, scheduling clerk, and part-time court clerk. She is the person to contact when scheduling matters in my court or if you have questions about my judicial practices. My primary court clerk, who also serves as the court services coordinator, is the person to contact for transcripts, jury matters, and billings, such as for court-appointed experts. My law clerk does legal research and prepares memorandums for two judges. She also serves as our bailiff for trials. These individuals are all very approachable and pride themselves on their customer service. Please feel free to reach out to any of them if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.

When and how do attorneys request an adjournment? 

For adjournments of nontrial matters, I will typically sign a stipulation and order if the parties haven’t previously requested an adjournment and the adjournment does not alter trial scheduling. For requests to adjourn trial, I typically require a motion. If the parties choose to initially have a conference with me about the request, my judicial assistant will schedule that for you. Attorneys for both sides need to participate, although they may do so by phone if necessary.

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

Once your case is bound over to circuit court from district court, you will be provided a notice to appear in my court for a pretrial conference. If you have a conflict with the date, please contact my judicial assistant for rescheduling. The pretrials are set on Mondays at 1 p.m. Because so many are set at the same time, we can ordinarily accommodate an attorney who needs to arrive late if the attorney makes the request ahead of time and properly notifies the client. If the attorneys have their case settled, we will place the plea on the record and provide a sentence date. If the attorneys need to speak to me about the case, or if they are seeking a Cobbs evaluation, the parties will meet in my office. If the case is not resolved and the parties do not need to speak with me directly, the parties complete a criminal pretrial summary form. My judicial assistant then prepares a criminal scheduling order that contains motion filing deadlines and dates for final pretrial and trial. 

How are trial dates scheduled? 

Trial dates are set if a case does not resolve at the initial pretrial conference. Absent good cause, our trial dates are “date certain.” As a result, my judicial assistant consults with the attorneys regarding their availability prior to setting the final pretrial and trial dates. Please bring your calendar with you to the pretrial.

Do you have any advice for new lawyers? 

Be civil, courteous, and respectful to your client, to your opponent, and to the court. Don’t conflate zealous advocacy with offensive tactics or behavior. Be professional and be prepared. If you do not prevail, don’t argue with the court. You have made your record. Always be honest with the court, even when you’ve made a mistake.

And, unless you have them all memorized, don’t forget to bring your Michigan Rules of Court!

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

I recently had an extensive juvenile life resentencing hearing. Over the months preceding the hearing, the attorneys expressed fervent disagreement as to the outcome. During the hearing, however, they worked collaboratively to ensure that the hearing was efficient, that witnesses weren’t overly inconvenienced, and that the court had the relevant law and facts. They provided a joint exhibit binder, which assisted me in reviewing my hearing notes and in preparing my opinion. Their passion for their respective causes was coupled with cooperation and professionalism. That impressed me.

What is something interesting you do off the bench?  

I enjoy interesting travel experiences. In recent years, I’ve hiked and snorkeled in Honduras and Ecuador, gone horseback riding in South Africa, traversed Iceland in an RV, taken a cooking class in Paris, and chartered a bareboat in the Caribbean. I look forward to visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile this spring. Closer to home, I enjoy anything related to Lake Michigan—paddleboarding, boating, and walking my dog, Doug, on the beach. 

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

Don’t ever be afraid of going to court or of going to a trial. Life in a courtroom is dynamic and dramatic. For many attorneys, it is the most exciting part of the job. Understand that the jurors are probably more afraid than you are and that the judge was in your shoes before wearing a robe. If you are prepared and professional, others will be impressed with you.