Michigan Top Justices OK Cell Phones In Court, But Selfies Need Approval

You don’t have to leave your phone in the car or throw it in a planter outside. But there are rules!

Michigan Supreme Court

Last week’s Michigan Supreme Court decision allowing cell phones in all state courtrooms has big implications ⁠— and not just for litigants and reporters. 

Starting May 1, 2020, members of the public will be able to carry their electronic devices into courtrooms and use them to access the internet, as well as to send and receive emails and text messages.

And it’s not just cell phones.

“We heard comments after comments from members of the public who took the bus or took Uber to get to court and then were not allowed to get into the courthouse.” – Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack

The ruling states that the term portable electronic device “encompasses, among other things, a transportable computer of any size, including a tablet, a notebook, and a laptop; a smart phone, a cell phone, or other wireless phone; a camera and other audio or video recording devices; a personal digital assistant; other devices that provide internet access; and any similar items.”

Justices cited a number of reasons for the rule change, but they all boil down to increased access to courts. 

“Simply having a cell phone shouldn’t be a reason to deny access to the public,” said Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack in an interview with WCMU public radio. “We heard comments after comments from members of the public who took the bus or took Uber to get to court and then were not allowed to get into the courthouse because they had their cell phone and either had to leave it outside or miss their important court appearance.”

Click on the player above to hear MichMash hosts Cheyna Roth and Jake Neher talk about the rule change and why it matters to you.

Supporters of the rule change say it’s especially important for low-income people, people who don’t have cars or other places to store a phone, and people who represent themselves in court.

But the effects are wide-reaching. You might not be planning on walking into court in handcuffs any time soon, but this decision goes beyond criminal cases. Civil cases involving things like wills and trusts, custody, divorce, landlord and tenant issues, and even property rights go through the courts.

Additionally, the public will be able to take pictures of court documents “as long as the device leaves no mark or impression on the document and does not unreasonably interfere with the operation of the clerk’s office.” This is a big deal for transparency in a state where some courts charge $1-per-page or more to reproduce court documents. 

Dissenting Opinion, Restrictions

Not everyone is a fan of the decision, however.

One justice, Stephen Markman, dissented. Justice Markman wrote in his dissenting opinion that decisions regarding electronic devices should be left up to judges in each courtroom.

“In adopting a rule that allows phones in the courtroom, 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,” Markman wrote in his dissent. “In pursuing this course, we also give inadequate consideration and deference to the opinions and concerns of the judges of this state who will be on the front lines of confronting the problems associated with these phones and who will be held responsible for enforcing what many of them recognize to be a practically unenforceable rule. I dissent and would adopt a considerably more measured rule.”

Now, before you go ahead and start trying to make #CourtSelfies a thing, know that this change still comes with some rules.

Devices must be silenced in court. You still can’t use your device to take photographs or for audio or video recording, broadcasting, or live streaming.

That’s unless that use is specifically allowed by the judge presiding over that courtroom. You can’t photograph, record, broadcast, or live stream any juror or anyone called to the court for jury service. Courts can still further “reasonable limits” on photography, recording, or broadcasting as long as they are “not inconsistent with this rule.”

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  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.
  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.