Q & A with Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford, United States District Court—Eastern District of Michigan

By Rebekah Page-Gourley posted 08-01-2018 13:57


Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford, United States District Court--Eastern District of Michigan 

Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford joined the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 2014. Judge Stafford previously worked at a private law firm, as a career law clerk for Judge Victoria A. Roberts, and as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

What is the worst thing a lawyer can do in court?

The worst thing a lawyer can do is become belligerent with a judge. This is especially true when the judge is trying to explain something or ask a particular question and the lawyer is not really listening. The lawyer can’t competently answer the judge’s question, and is not being a good advocate, if he or she is not listening to what the judge needs in order to decide the issue.

What is the best thing a lawyer can do in court?

The very best thing to do is be thoroughly prepared and argue the law and the facts without unnecessarily disparaging your opponent or making immaterial arguments about fairness. The judge has to decide each issue based on the law and the salient facts, even if the result may offend someone’s sense of fairness.

What role does your support staff play?

I have a case manager and three law clerks (two of whom are part time). My case manager is also called a deputy clerk. She is outstanding and absolutely vital to my work. I could not possibly cover everything she does, but I can try to outline the basics. When matters come in that need attention, the case manager directs them to the appropriate person. She stays on top of motions that need to be resolved, making sure that things aren’t forgotten. She files all documents, schedules settlement conferences, schedules motion hearings, and interacts with attorneys in general. She is technically an employee of the clerk’s office; she is essentially my in-chambers court clerk. During the weeks in which I am on criminal pretrial duty, my case manager processes all complaints, search warrants, and other documents. When I am in duty court hearing pretrial criminal matters, she orchestrates what is called next and inputs the relevant events that occur during the hearing into the electronic court filing system.

My law clerks perform research, prepare reports and recommendations, prepare orders, and are responsible for managing the motions that are assigned to them.

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

In federal court, there is no general motion call on a particular day like in state court. Rather, we schedule hearings as we can, and generally there is only one motion being heard at a time. Sometimes a district judge will schedule a few plea or sentencing hearings at a time, especially for codefendants. But usually in federal court, the hearing time is yours. The exception is duty court, during which a magistrate judge handles initial appearances, arraignments, detention hearings, and the like. Duty court is every day at 1:00 p.m., and all of the attorneys are supposed to be in court and ready to handle their matter at that time. The number of defendants who have duty court hearings on any given day can range from a few to more than 20.

When and how do lawyers request an adjournment?

Lawyers can call my case manager or file a stipulation or a motion. I am usually flexible about granting adjournments, but sometimes I can’t be. For example, every six months, a Civil Justice Reform Act (CJRA) report is generated that indicates, among other things, how many motions have been pending longer than six months. My timely disposition of some motions affects the assigned district judges’ ability to resolve any objections before the end of that six-month period, and most of the judges want to have no pending motions on that report. So if someone is requesting an extension that would threaten the ability to get the motion disposed of in time, that’s an issue. When I am referred settlement conferences, discovery motions, and the like from district judges, I also have to be sensitive to the overall scheduling order. For example, if a motion to compel has been filed, I will look at the existing discovery and dispositive motion deadlines to determine when I need to hear it.

What happens at a settlement conference?

I require client attendance at my settlement conferences; the person with settlement authority should be there. Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. If a lawyer provides a compelling reason why a client cannot appear in court, the client will have to appear by phone and must attend the conference by phone the entire time—not just when the lawyer wants to ask for authority.

At the beginning of the conference, I meet everyone in the courtroom, introduce myself, and describe what will happen if the case goes to trial. For example, I explain that strangers would be sitting in judgment of the parties and how difficult it is to be cross-examined. I outline the different possible outcomes. I also stress that I will keep things confidential—I won’t share anything with the other side or with the referring judge. I then put the parties in separate rooms and go back and forth between them to facilitate the negotiations. I do my best to fairly hear and convey the perspectives of both sides. If the parties arrive at a settlement, we put it on the record.

I encourage lawyers to prepare well for the settlement conference and to be honest and complete in their confidential settlement conference statements. They should be reasonable, they should try to understand the perspectives of their opponents, and they should come to the conference ready to talk specific amounts. Never come to the settlement conference without having talked to your client.

When should an attorney ask for a sidebar?

It’s important to hear what the lawyer has to say, so I am pretty liberal with sidebars. If a lawyer is abusing the privilege, I will let him or her know.

What is the one thing you would emphasize to the lawyers appearing in your courtroom?

One of the most frustrating things I experience involves misapplication of the discovery rules. Amendments to Fed R Civ P 26 in December 2015 removed language saying that evidence is discoverable if it is “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” The new rules include proportionality factors for the court to consider when determining the scope of discovery. Lawyers are supposed to address these proportionality factors in their filings, but many times they do not—and they continue to reference the old language in their objections and motions. The amended rules are also supposed to do away with meaningless boilerplate objections, but parties continue to make those as well.

I try to force the parties to analyze the proportionality factors and respond as required. When they’ve done that, I have a much better understanding of their perspectives. It’s better advocacy to provide the judges with the information we need to make a decision based on the amended rules.

Anything else?

Be sure to use the correct terminology when addressing the court. It is proper to address a magistrate judge as "magistrate judge" or "judge," but never just "magistrate."

What has been the most satisfying experience you have had since your appointment to the bench?

I find many aspects of my position to be immensely satisfying. One highlight has been helping to create an “alternatives to prisons” program in my court. In 2015, I learned about the availability of such programs in other federal districts and presented the materials to now Chief Judge Denise Page Hood. Over the next year or so we worked closely with members from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Federal Defender Office, District Judge Paul Borman, pretrial services officers, and probation officers. We started our own program in 2017 with a class of seven, and four participants graduated in June 2018. Others will be graduating soon as well, and we have recently accepted a new class of participants.

Defendants who successfully complete the program and graduate avoid a prison sentence and in some cases will have no felony conviction on their record. There is no specific criteria for a defendant to be accepted into the program. After someone nominates the defendant, pretrial services does an evaluation to determine whether the person is likely to be successful in the program based on a number of considerations, including the severity of the crime and whether there were victims. It is a time-intensive process for all of the team members, and each participant is in the program for 12 to 18 months. It has been extremely rewarding to see this program come to fruition.

Finally, what do you do for fun when you’re not in the courtroom?

I love to exercise. Currently, I’m alternating between bike riding on some days and interval walk-runs on other days. I try to get in some weight training too. I also quite enjoy traveling. But nothing beats good laughs while spending time with my family and friends.