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Michigan to allow cellphones in all courts, striking down local bans

LANSING –  Cellphones, laptops, tablets and similar devices will be allowed in all Michigan courts beginning in May, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The order strikes bans on cellphones that are common in Michigan’s 242 courts, which are allowed to set their own policies. And it follows public testimony from lawyers and other advocates who said the rules create barriers for defendants, the indigent and their families.

“The comments we received and testimony we heard that cell phone access was essential to self-represented litigants was compelling,” Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack said in a statement. “We appreciate the willingness of local courts to implement this reform that will help make sure the doors to our courts are open to all.”

Some judges expressed concern that the rule change would allow for witness intimidation, secretly recorded testimony and chaotic courtrooms. The Michigan Probate Judges Association, the Michigan Court Administrators Association and the Michigan District Judges Association could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

The rule bars audio or video recording of court proceedings without the permission of a judge, prohibits photos of jurors, and allows judges to sanction those who break those restrictions, including the ability to charge rule-breakers with contempt of court. 

“Not having a cellphone impairs an individuals’ ability to get to court, to present evidence… and to have counsel present,” in cases when attorneys don’t show up, Charles Hobbs of Detroit-based nonprofit Street Justice told the court in November. 

Another significant element of the rule change allows for the public to use cellphones and other devices to copy public court documents as long as it doesn’t “unreasonably interfere with the operation of the clerk’s office.”

The record reproduction proposal was a major concern for multiple county clerks tht wrote in to protest the change. Many said file reproduction could cause confidential information such as Social Security numbers to accidentally be made public and put a dent in revenue as most counties currently charge about $1 per page to copy documents. The Michigan Association of County Clerks and individual clerks were not immediately available for comment Wednesday. 

Justice Stephen Markman dissented, arguing the court had a umber of other options of how to tackle the problem that he would have supported, including requiring courts provide lockers for phones in courthouses so they would remain secure while people are courtrooms or allowing only jurors, self-represented people and others with special circumstances to have phones. 

The rule will create challenges for courtrooms working to enforce its restrictions while conducting regular business, will create distractions in the courtroom, and put people in danger in criminal trials, Markman wrote. 

“This Court gives greater regard to a modest increase in personal convenience than to the traditional sanctity of the courtroom and the security of jurors and witnesses.”

A number of other states have considered changes to cellphone policies in the courts after the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators encouraged members to review their policies in a 2018 resolution.

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