Kentwood court innovates in technology and programs

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In the 62-B courtrooms, attorneys may transfer images on the bed at right directly onto the computer screen, left, to be seen by the judge and witnesses. They may also plug the unit into their computers to display documents. Users may zoom in or out on the documents, and point at, circle, or highlight individual items, or manipulate the display in other ways.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The philosophy behind the way Judge William G. Kelly set up the Kentwood 62-B District Court is simple.  “I tried to make it user-friendly; I looked at, what are the needs of the various stakeholders, the attorneys, the litigants, the general public?”

 That has led to a strategic use of state-of-the-art technology, but in a way that makes good sense for users.

With ease, attorneys or the judge himself may use the equipment pictured at left to mount either hard-copy or electronically-stored documents for other participants to see. Imagine being able to mark up exhibits, point to pertinent sections, circle others, without making an impact on the originals.

Judge Kelly’s terminal is equipped with video capabilities, so he may videoconference in a variety of needed witnesses: people at the state lab in Lansing, attorneys and their clients in conference areas, even distant experts who may be asked questions in real time.

And there is a video connection to the jail, eliminating the necessity for the accused to travel in person to the court. Judge Kelly feels this is an especially important advantage.

“Do you remember Lee Harvey Oswald? Do you remember what happened to him when he was being taken from the jail to the court?” he asks. While it is unlikely that most people will get murdered on their way as President John F. Kennedy’s accused assassin did, the technology reduces the risk for both offenders and those who must transport them.

The computerized assistance for citizens who must come to court starts right at the beginning of their contact with the judge. Kelly is able to display a spoken and visually-spelled-out introduction and indication of their rights.

He says this is based on research which shows that people will pay most attention when they are reading the text along with its being read out loud to them.
With a click of the mouse, Judge Kelly can switch the introduction from English to Spanish, Bosnian or Vietnamese, servicing the largest non-English-speaking populations found in the Kentwood area.

In fact, Judge Kelly will make a presentation on just that use of computerization at the upcoming American Bar Association conference in Toronto this August.
Judge Kelly has a long history of service to the ABA, having served as chair of the National Conference of the Special Court Judges and of the Judicial Division Committee on Traffic Court Programs for the national organization.

His contributions on the national and state front have been prodigious, including his current positions on the Michigan Supreme Court Limited English Proficiency Committee and co-chairing the Legislative Committee of the Michigan District Judges Association. He teaches through the Michigan Judicial Institute and the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, as well as through Cooley Law School — the last on the subject of “Advanced Trail Practice: Use of Technology.”

He has also just become a member of the board of the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

Being the judge in Kentwood is kind of a Kelly family occupation. Judge Kelly graduated from the University of Detroit School of Law in 1975, worked at the Kalamazoo Prosecutor’s Office and Kent County Defender’s Office, but ran for the judiciary in 1979.

With a twinkle in his eye, Kelly explains, “My predecessor was a municipal judge part time, and he kept his practice all along, but he was 69 at the time. So I said, ‘Dad, are you thinking about retiring?’ “

His father did retire, and William Kelly ran for the position and won. He has held it ever since;  the judgeship became full time as Kentwood’s population grew. In 1980 Kentwood had about 29,000 people but that grew to about 48,000 before most recently becoming stagnant.

Growth is anticipated to take that up to 60,000 in the next 10-15 years. Knowing that, Kelly and the City of Kentwood planned the courthouse to allow for more population than it currently serves, so that another building project would not be necessary for quite some time.

Even before Kelly’s current realization about the benefits of technology, he was involved with programs that were experimental but effective.

Chief among them is the “Healthy Marriage” program, which mandates that couples thinking about a wedding take an in-depth preparation course. Nearby Pine Rest holds the  courses, which were developed working in conjunction with then-Mayor Bill Hardiman, who later went on to become a state senator and is now working in the Snyder Administration.

Two newer projects are also worthy of note. First, the court is on the cusp of allowing long-distance interface for Kentwood residents with the Legal Assistance Center downtown. A dedicated computer has been installed, and will be in working order soon.

Another is the use of mediation in small claims court. Judge Kelly is on the Dispute Resolution Center board, and the organization approached him about a pilot program.

It has been successful in resolving cases. “The more tools you have available the more likely you are to come up with the right tool,” Judge Kelly comments. Moreover, he recounts a case where he keyed in on the fact that the plaintiff and the defendant had previously been friends, and asked them if they’d like to mediate. They found a solution, but were also able to renew their friendship.

Kelly observes that being judge in a smaller court is advantageous in that, when approached with a program proposal, it is easy for him to put it in place. The flip side of that coin is, in his words, “It’s also a great responsibility. If people like or dislike what they see they know exactly who to credit or blame.”

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