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Supreme Court Rules Cell Phones Must be Allowed in Court

BY IN General

Yesterday, January 8, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court adopted an amendment to the Michigan Court Rules explicitly allowing the public to bring and use cell phones in the courthouse and courtrooms as long as the phone is set to silent.   The Supreme Court’s news release sums up the changes.  There are some pros and cons to this ruling.

Historically, most courtrooms had prominently displayed signs either requiring those entering the courtroom to silence their cell phones and not use the phone or prohibiting people from bringing a cell phone into the courtroom.  Occasionally an attorney or party would be caught red handed when they forgot to silence their phone and they had to scramble to turn it off.   Most local judges consistently enforced the cell phone rule.  Cell phones would be confiscated for 24-48 hours when the loud ringing announced an incoming call, or if the judge was lenient, the attorney was afforded a one-time warning.

Although sometimes inconvenient, the cell phone ban made sense.  Litigants are stressed and forget to silence their phone.  To have oral arguments interrupted with loud ringing followed up by a judge’s warnings or confiscation of the phone can harm the attorney’s and judge’s train of thought and argument.

The new rule prohibits litigation participants from communicating with other participants.  During trials and evidentiary hearings, attorneys often sequester the witnesses so that one witness cannot alter his or her testimony based on a previous witness’ testimony.  Of course, if a spectator may text during proceedings, the judge or attorneys do not know whom the spectator is texting, and they may be carrying on a text exchange with other witnesses or with the litigant. 

More importantly, the new rule only prohibits the photographing of jurors or potential jurors.  Cell phone use in the courtroom could potentially allow spectators to take photos of adverse witnesses which could be used negatively on social media.

On the other hand, the rule change also allows participants to reproduce court documents in the clerk’s office if the reproduction does not leave a mark.  In other words, whereas in the past, court clerks charged $1.00 per page to photocopy pertinent court file information, one may now take a photograph of the relevant pages or scan the page with a handheld scanner.

Lastly, the rule still allows a judge to limit or terminate certain activity when it is disruptive to court operations or compromises court security and the judge may still sanction violators when the phone user failed to turn the phone to silent mode. 

Time will tell the real benefits or drawbacks from this new rule.