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Q&A with Judge Robert S. Sykes, Jr., Ionia County Probate Court

By Rachael M. Sedlacek posted 08-07-2023 11:24


Judge Robert S. Sykes, Jr. is a life-long resident of Ionia County.  He is a graduate of Purdue University and Valparaiso University School of Law.  Upon graduating from law school, he worked in private practice, primarily with the law firm of McNamara, O’Keeffe and Sykes until being elected the Ionia County Probate Judge in 2004.  He is a member of the Ionia County Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.  He is the 2010 recipient of the Robert E. Weiss Judicial Leadership Award and the 2016 recipient of the Michigan Foster Care Review Board Jurist of the Year.

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

You may check-in at the probate office located on the first floor of the “old” courthouse. The courtroom is on the second floor.

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

I do not have a designated motion day. All hearings are scheduled based on the availability of the parties regardless of the case type or day.

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?

It is preferred that proposed orders be submitted prior to the hearing.  There is not a computer available to draft orders following a hearing.

How should stipulated orders be submitted?

Orders may be submitted by hard copy or email.

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

The staff includes a probate register, a deputy register/court recorder, and a deputy register. Each is assigned specific case to monitor but all are available to answer phone calls and meet with citizens at the counter.

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

Pretrial conferences will be scheduled at the request of a party. The court may also schedule a pretrial conference in contested litigation where discovery will occur. The primary purposes are to discuss scheduling timeframes and possible mediation.

Are you still using Zoom? If so, what types of matters/motions are held via Zoom?

Like it or not, Zoom is here to stay, and we use it regularly. It has been used in all types of hearings; however, it is preferred that the parties appear in the courtroom for trials. 

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

Not having their clients prepared to participate by Zoom. Clients often view Zoom hearings as less formal or meaningful and become distracted or engage in inappropriate behavior that would not be tolerated in the courtroom.  It is preferred that clients appear with their attorneys from the same location. This allows for easier attorney-client conversations.

Do you have any advice for attorneys appearing remotely?

Prepare for and treat a Zoom hearing the same as you would if attending in person. 

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

Stating your position clearly and concisely while respectfully distinguishing your position from your opponent. Every case has strengths and weaknesses. I respect attorneys that acknowledge possible weaknesses and explain why they should not be fatal to their case.

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

All of them, although this is becoming more difficult as I see more unrepresented parties attempting to navigate their way through the justice system. 

Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom?

I observed long ago that, in many cases, the practice of law has devolved from a respected profession to a cut-throat business. Treating everyone with respect is crucial, although difficult at times. The actions of the lawyers dictate how their clients and others in the courtroom behave; therefore, they must always stay composed. If the lawyers become theatrical or interrupt opposing counsel, others in the courtroom feel that they can do the same. 

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

MRE 403 Exclusion of Relevant Evidence on Grounds of Prejudice, Confusion, or Waste of Time. In my opinion, this rule should be used more frequently by lawyers to prevent unfair prejudice against a party and the repeating of the same testimony over and over, especially when facing parties who are representing themselves.

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

I am always impressed by lawyers who are respectful to everyone involved in the case. Often emotions run high, but the lawyers who can maintain their composure and allow the case to be presented regardless of how the other side is acting always gain my respect. 

What is something interesting you do off the bench?

I enjoy all athletics, particularly college football, hunting, and auto racing. I have attended 17 Indy 500s over the years and there is no single day sporting event in the world that compares.

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

Our court tries its best to be helpful and accommodating to everyone. Please adhere to a variation of the Golden Rule: treat the court staff as you would want to be treated.