More than schools: Snow cancels court, too

ALPENA–In recent weeks, weather has been a factor in closing the doors of schools, churches, and public places the past few weeks — and courthouses are no exception.

Twice in the past two weeks Alpena’s district and circuit courts were forced to close early because of inclement weather. On Jan. 28, blizzard conditions sent court workers home by early afternoon. Courts were closed early again on Thursday when ice accumulation made roads hazardous.

The determination whether to close the courthouses fell to county Board of Commissioners Chairman Brad McRoberts. It was a decision he did not take lightly, knowing people likely had arranged their schedules around court dates and may have traveled some distance to get their case heard in court. He emphasized that such decisions have to be made using the safety of court employees as the standard.

“They look out for our good, so we have to look out for their good,” McRoberts said.

Counties across the state have experienced closures of courthouses in the past weeks, some of them for days at a time.

Marcia Burns, court administrator for Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court, expressed gratitude that the bad weather happened to fall on days when the caseload wasn’t too heavy. That prevented the overwhelming backlog of cases being experienced elsewhere.

“The way the storms have fallen, it hasn’t been on a day when we had 75 different cases on our docket when we had people coming from all over,” Burns said.

Occasionally, circuit court will be canceled on heavily-stacked motion days, presenting the challenge of getting word out to every person scheduled to come in that day. Burns remembers a storm warning for 10 to 12 inches of snow and “a hundred jurors (expecting) coming in the next day for juror selection – we’ll cancel that so they don’t have to go out in that kind of weather.”

While circuit courts handle higher-level cases such as felonies, civil cases seeking more than $25,000 in damages, and family matters, most cases that enter the court system start out in district court. Traffic tickets, small claims, landlord/tenant disputes, drunk-driving charges, assaults – it all starts with a court date at the district court building on Chisholm Street.

“It’s a constant flow of stuff in here,” court administrator Mary Muszynski said. “We do everything.”

The 88th District Court in Alpena logs 7,000 new filings each year, with an average of 25 different cases on each day’s docket, plus a steady flow of drop-in visitors needing to request files, pay fines, and perform other transactions at the clerk’s window. A winter cancellation could cause substantial disruption to the court schedule, but the recent weather-related early dismissals have not put too much of a wrinkle into court proceedings, according to Muszynski.

A winter snowstorm could easily upset scheduling and cause cases to be delayed for weeks or even months. Fortunately, Muszynski was able to reschedule the missed cases for the following week or two at the most and “we were able to get them back on track.”

Muszynski has been in her office 40 years and only remembers being closed a handful of times.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.