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Q & A with Judge Jon Van Allsburg, Chief Circuit Judge for Ottawa County

By Tala Dahbour posted 07-14-2022 08:30

Judge Van Allsburg

Hon. Jon A. Van Allsburg is chief circuit judge for the 20th Circuit Court in Ottawa County, Michigan, where he is assigned to the Family Division and Business Court. He spent more than 20 years practicing law before joining the bench and has taught business law at both Grand Valley State University and Hope College. Judge Van Allsburg has served in the Family Violence Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and is a former president of the Michigan Judges Association. He is an honors graduate of the Michigan State University College of Law.

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

I have no formal check-in process. When counsel or parties appear in person, they will generally come directly to my courtroom and wait for me to call the case. If they check in at the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, they will be directed to the courtroom.


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

Motion day is on Monday. Pre-COVID, we would set hearings every fifteen minutes (no cattle calls). Post-COVID, we generally set hearings every half hour, unless a longer time is requested (though the court may limit such requests).


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?


Proposed orders are appreciated, but not required (unless the motion is to enter an order or object to opposing party’s order). A computer is available in the law library, and documents can be emailed to the judicial assistant for printing (there are capacity limitations, so please make those arrangements ahead of time). Some attorneys bring laptops for that purpose.


How should stipulated orders be submitted?


Through the court’s MiFILE system. For expedited handling (e.g., day-of-trial/hearing submissions), they can be emailed to my judicial assistant.


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


My judicial assistant assists in forwarding “Judge’s Copy” briefs, compiling exhibits provided to the court prior to a Zoom hearing, etc. I write most of my own opinions, but my four (soon to be five—four circuit and one probate) colleagues and I have the assistance of a pool of three research attorneys.


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


I conduct early scheduling conferences in all business court cases within the month after answers are filed. Based upon discussion with counsel, a scheduling order results, summarizing the status of the case and case management dates, and setting deadlines for discovery, mediation, disclosure of witnesses/exhibits, hearing of summary disposition and other motions, and the date for a settlement conference (at which a trial date is set if necessary). In domestic relations cases, a pretrial conference is scheduled immediately following the close of discovery. That conference determines what issues are resolved/not resolved, whether discovery is complete, whether additional ADR will take place, and sets either a follow-up conference or a trial date.


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


Zoom hearings occur every day. Most conferences and motion hearings still occur on Zoom (though personal appearance is not prohibited, and hybrid participation—one party/attorney on Zoom, the other in the courtroom—is not uncommon).  My preference is to conduct all trials and longer evidentiary hearings (one hour or more) in person (though the court is willing to accommodate Zoom participation by parties/counsel/witnesses where appropriate/convenient). These arrangements should be made ahead of time and known to the court and the other party.


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


I frequently see poor settings (bad lighting, distracting or unprofessional backgrounds) and poor connectivity issues (inadequate microphone or internet connection). Many attorneys have not mastered Zoom, and identification and admissibility of exhibits over Zoom continues to be a problem for many attorneys (and most unrepresented litigants), which is one reason why trials and evidentiary hearings should be in person whenever possible.


A few attorneys have a problem with dressing properly for Zoom court. While Zoom is often considered a little less formal than appearance in a courtroom, pajamas and t-shirts aren’t appropriate. I expect attorneys to set an example for clients and other participants. On rare occasions, I have excluded unrepresented parties from participation in a Zoom hearing for wearing vulgar or insufficient clothing, smoking or eating during a hearing, and even driving during a hearing.


Do you have any advice for attorneys appearing remotely?


Know how to troubleshoot technology issues and have a good internet connection; check your client’s technology ahead of time. Be prepared with respect to any exhibits (don’t expect your client to be able to identify an exhibit if they’re participating through a smartphone screen). The best practice is to share hard copies of well-marked exhibits with the court and all parties ahead of the hearing.

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


I prefer a very brief summary of the case, then a summary of the specific issues before the court, before addressing the legal arguments. In a motion hearing, stick to the pending issues without attempting to try the whole case.


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


Most discovery and scheduling disputes. Zealous representation of a client does not require—or excuse—a lack of cooperation or lack of courtesy between counsel.


Any other common mistakes lawyers make in your courtroom?


Many attorneys fail to plan their argument, or their direct or cross-examination of a witness, with the court’s time frame in mind. Don’t make a 20-minute opening statement when the court only has an hour available for your entire hearing. The time to begin planning your presentation is when the hearing is scheduled. Always ask how much time is available for the hearing, and, if the time available is insufficient, request a different hearing date. Keep in mind that the court has the authority to determine how much time to allocate and may place a time limit on your case (MRE 611).

Another common mistake is failing to prepare a trial brief or memorandum of law prior to trial, or prior to a hearing on a significant legal issue. Attorneys who timely submit trial statements, briefs, and settlement conference summaries are usually the best prepared at the trial or hearing and more likely to have a successful outcome.


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

MRE 103(a)(1)— an objection is made not just by saying “objection!” (which then requires the court to say “what’s the objection?”) An objection, to preserve appellate rights, must state “the specific ground of objection, if the specific ground was not apparent from the context.”


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


When an attorney forthrightly acknowledges a weakness in a client’s case (or a contrary precedent) while making a good faith argument on his/her behalf, the attorney’s credibility increases. I am also impressed by an attorney who avoids being drawn into a client’s drama and is able to reduce the level of conflict by managing client expectations and being a calming influence.

What is something interesting you do off the bench?


I enjoy adventure travel and have hiked in Antarctica, canoed in the Amazon, climbed 41 state high points, and just returned from an African safari.


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


We are lucky to be engaged in a noble pursuit—the administration of justice—in a time in which the resolution of conflict seems increasingly difficult. Your skills and service are needed more than ever.