In this episode, we get to hear a unique perspective on family law from a judge of the Oakland County Circuit Court Family Division, Judge Cunningham. Marcy interviews Judge Cunningham on a number of interesting topics ranging from how COVID has impacted the judicial process, to what kinds of family law cases keep him up at night… in addition to all kinds of helpful advice for anyone going through a divorce or family law dispute. Judge Cunningham is active with the Oakland County Bar Association and also sits on the Michigan Child Welfare Leadership Task Force. He serves as a member of the International Association of LGBTQ judges, the American Judges Association, the Irish and Armenian Judges Associations as well as the Michigan Judges Association. Don’t miss out on the ‘inside’ information and valuable insights offered from someone who makes judgments in family law court for numerous families every single day.
Interview with Judge Cunningham
Welcome Judge Cunningham.
Thank you for participating with us today. I’d like to get started by finding out how has COVID changed your courtroom and how you are administering justice every day?
Great question. COVID has changed everybody’s life. It’s changed the way we do business. And I think every sector, government, private sector, you name it, we’ve been having to adjust how we’re doing things on the day to day; the justice system and the court system is absolutely no different. We have been utilizing Zoom in our court as much as possible for things that we can effectively do on Zoom. But of course that comes with the challenges that you one would expect in terms of connectivity, making sure people have the right login and appropriate bandwidth, so to speak, for Wi Fi and it also comes along with people walking around their home during a hearing as if it’s a casual call with friends. It’s changed a lot, but we are trying to do as much as we can via zoom. We are able to do almost everything I would say short of actual evidentiary hearings and trials where we’ve got witnesses on the stand and testimony being taken and exhibits being introduced as well as being argued by the attorneys. But other than that, we’re using zoom as much as we can and remote access to court proceedings. I’ll also note that in the state of Michigan, almost every case was added to the [digital] file system; that was something that was in the works for some time. And the last group of cases that needed to be put on the file system were family cases. So the divorce cases, divorces without children had been in file for some time, I think as a kind of pilot to see how that’s going. But there’s a lot more paperwork in domestic cases than one would expect. So they have been last to the game, so to speak, on E-file, but now custody actions, paternity actions, really any cases now available to do e-file through the court e-filing system. So the exchange of paperwork has been greatly reduced as well.
Yes. And as a practitioner, that is something that is really streamlined. Many of the cases we had to rely in the past on more personal service or having a courier take things to the court. And so it has made it a little bit more efficient. So that I guess is one of the good things about COVID. How do you deal with dress code issues you mentioned people are walking around their house while they’re at court. They’re supposed to be testifying in court. Are you expecting litigants who appear before you on zoom to be following the same decorum that they would follow if they weren’t in the courtroom?
That’s a great question. And it’s kind of half yes, half no answer, which I know is not very helpful in the practical sense. But I guess this is my expectation, and I think there’s probably a lot of judges that fall under the same category of dealing with this. You know, we’re all in a weird spot right now. I mean, appearing in court on a screen is strange, you know, I’ll call it what it is. It’s a little bit strange. And to the extent that we’re trying to make it feel and seem as though it’s in open court as just as we would be in the courtroom at the courthouse. It’s obviously not, you know, we’re in people’s living rooms. We’re in people’s dining rooms, you know, we’re all doing the best we can so I guess, as far as actual courtroom, virtual courtroom and air quotes, which I know no one could see me doing air quotes, but it would be you know, it’s somewhere in between formal dress for court and being respectful and appropriate of what’s going on. I’ve seen everything from attorneys in full suit and tie, which you know, I certainly appreciate but I don’t even know where to get clothes dry cleaned and taken care of. I don’t know how to get those things done right now either. So, I mean, I get to wear a robe. So to some degree, I’m kind of hidden by the robe but normally you would see you know, my collar sticking out with my tie. And right now I’m not going that far because again, I don’t know where to get shirts dry cleaned, and I’m not going to spend time ironing just for, you know, a few minutes on zoom every day. But I would expect people to, you know, not be in a Van Halen t-shirt, either. You know, it’s kind of somewhere in between… and the the temptation I think that because we’re all on zoom or FaceTime, or whatever.
The temptation to do two things is sometimes very frustrating to the core to me, and I think some of my colleagues and that is the walking around. I’ve been on zooms where litigants and attorneys are actually in their car driving around, and I feel like I need some sort of Dramamine because I can see the trees whipping around behind them, you know, it’s a little, you know, nauseating. I’ve seen people walk around their house, there was one moment where I thought we were going into the restroom with somebody. I mean, it’s very strange. So I guess I would say, on one hand, again, you know, no rock and roll t-shirts, you know, maybe just to look clean and presentable, so to speak, is the dress expectation, but also the moving around, you know, just sit still, if you were in court, you’d be standing next to your attorney at the podium, you know, you wouldn’t be walking around. I had one individual actually light up a cigarette, which he extinguished, but you know, not the time.
Yes, not the time, it’s a whole new world. But one of the things that I often recommend that my clients do at the beginning of their family law case is that they go sit for an hour or two during a motion on the Call of Duty that’s been assigned to their case. And I recommend that because I think it gives the clients a broader perspective about the types of things that people are fighting about and a perspective about how the judges have been assigned to their case may view certain issues. How, in the time of COVID, could someone listen in to the proceedings as a member of the public? Is that something that is able to be done?
Number one, that’s actually a question asked often, because we’ve been working really hard on that. And number two, I want to say this, I think that suggesting that to your clients is such a value for a couple of reasons. I know that’s not really technically the question, but I’m going to go there anyway. Because I honestly think having that experience just because it’s like when you go to the first day of school, you know, you’d like to go to the school first and know where your classroom is. It’s kind of the same feeling. It’s knowing how the judge is during a motion call. I think that is such a great thing; I’d actually never heard of anyone doing this. Seeing that you do that, because that helps take some of the pressure off because they’ll know where to go. And they’ll see kind of what’s going on. I think the thought of going to court for a lot of folks is very scary, especially in the world of Family Law matters. People, for the most part, have never been to a courtroom before, they’ve never had the need to be in the courtroom before or experienced proceedings in front of a judge. So I think that sending people in for a little bit to watch is a really good suggestion, frankly.
Thank you, you know, it serves two functions. I think one is for those who have not been to court and they’re really, you know, have a lot of anxiety about it, and they’re concerned about how that’s gonna go. I think in some ways that lessens their anxiety because like you said, they know what to expect. They’ve been through the security before they found the elevator, they kind of, you know, they know the drill. But I also find that in cases where I’m dealing with a client who wants to fight over everything, and I’m trying to say to them, Look, you know, let’s go focus on the big picture. Let’s focus on the major things. Let’s set your top five goals for what you really want to get out of this. Right? I think it recalibrates people’s expectations about what is worth fighting about, and what is not worth fighting about. And so, I’ve seen it work a couple different ways, but I wanted to make sure that there was still a way and of course, I assumed there was, yeah, but isn’t just your chambers phone number on zoom, or how would somebody access that?
Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my amazing interview with Judge Cunningham. His unique perspective and stories from experiences are so valuable to hear about!
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