COVID-19 Follow-Up Q&A with Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford

By Rebekah Page-Gourley posted 10-02-2020 09:06



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. Read Judge Stafford’s original Q&A from 2018 here.

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

The main change is that there are no proceedings in a physical courtroom right now; everything is done via Zoom. The courthouse remains closed to the public and court employees (including judicial officers) are teleworking for all duties except those that cannot be performed remotely. Attorneys needing to contact my chambers may still call my case manager. All jury trials in the courthouse are on hold, but a civil bench trial over Zoom is feasible; at least one district judge has held such a bench trial.

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

I am a member of the court’s Reconstitution Committee, composed of some judges and other court employees and led by Chief Judge Denise Page Hood. We are working hard on procedures to gradually and safely reopen the court. For our planning, we are mindful of the COVID-19 infection trends in Michigan, and those trends have recently made a turn for the worse.

We want to resume criminal trials—especially those considered “critical”—as soon as we can do so safely. A judge will consider a criminal trial to be critical after assessing and balancing several factors. (See Administrative Order 20-AO-038 at pages 5-6.) When addressing safety, we must consider a wide spectrum of participants: the defendants, jurors, defense counsel, witnesses, deputies and court security officers, other court staff, translators, and spectators. We must both provide safe procedures and meet the demands of due process.

Who is required to attend the Zoom hearings?

Attendance for Zoom hearings is exactly the same as it would be for in-person hearings. For motion hearings, the parties do not need to be there but can appear. For settlement conferences, the parties must attend. Criminal defendants who are detained are appearing from a jail or courthouse by Zoom. Those who are not detained also appear by Zoom, often using their phones. People are making it work.

What are the most common mistakes attorneys make on Zoom hearings?

There is certainly a variation in skill level and appropriateness in attorneys’ approaches to appearing via Zoom. Most people have been appropriate, but there have been a few problems. The Zoom setting can make the proceeding appear more informal, so attorneys will start to talk over the judge or opposing counsel in a way that they might not in court. I had someone the other day who was appearing with his client, and he came into the picture with a phone to his ear, made his appearance, and then walked away to continue his phone call. I had to ask him to put down the phone and join the hearing. I’ve also had people join the Zoom call from outside, which often involves a lot of background noise, making it hard for everyone to hear each other and for the court reporter to transcribe the hearing.

In general, I would just remind attorneys to dress appropriately and remember that this is a court setting, even if a nontraditional one. My advice is to treat the hearing just as formally as they would if they were in court, and to show the same respect.

Do you have any other advice for attorneys appearing remotely?

I would encourage any attorney who does not have a good Wi-Fi system at home to invest in improving that technology. Make the virtual hearing process as smooth as possible for yourself and the court. I got a bigger monitor so I am not limited to my laptop, and I am hooked up to my ethernet for a more stable connection. We likely will be proceeding virtually for the foreseeable future, so it is worth it to invest.

Any other advice for attorneys appearing in your courtroom right now?

Please have patience. The Eastern District of Michigan is down two magistrate judges right now, so fewer of us are handling a lot of work. We are working extremely hard, but things are not moving as quickly as they have in the past.

Have you picked up any new hobbies or interests during your time working at home?

I have been extraordinarily busy, but one thing that is necessary for my mental health and wellness is exercise. I love to walk, ride my bike, and use the rower in my basement. This is such a stressful time for everybody. We all need, if we are able, to take some time for ourselves to see some sunshine and move around a bit.