Trial Court Services Director wants to spread word on what is offered

prev
next

The new Director of Trial Court Services in the State Court Administrator’s Office, Jennifer Warner, sits at her desk in Lansing. In front of her is the first edition of the Adoption Proceedings bench book, which she wrote while at the Michigan Judicial Institute.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Jennifer Warner says, “I went in to law school knowing I wanted to help abused and neglected children,” and has followed a career path that has met that goal in both direct and indirect ways.

Now her new position as Director of Michigan Trial Court Services will expand that ability to help and broaden it to include the benefits of a more efficient, effective, and user-friendly court system.

Trial Court Services is a division of the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). Warner feels that what the agency does is a bit of a well-kept secret, but she intends to change that.

One way of describing Trial Court Services would be to say that it serves as a consultant to catalyze improvements in individual courts. Another body of endeavor involves convening work groups, task forces, and commissions which take an overview of how to improve the court system as a whole.

Warner’s diverse background suits her well for the job.

Born in Sterling Heights, she became familiar with the west side of the state when she received her undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University. She said that until two years ago, when family responsibilities made it too difficult — she and her husband have children aged three and six — she was a season ticket holder for the Western Michigan Broncos.

From Western she went to the Shepard Broad Law Center of Nova Southeastern University for her law degree, which took her down to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Warner says the school was “surprisingly serious” in a town known for spring break partying.

Coming back to West Michigan, she served for one year as an assistant prosecuting attorney in the Muskegon County office of Tony Tague, and then moved on to the prosecutor’s office in Ionia County, where she specialized in a broad range of juvenile cases.

In 2002, Warner took a position as a research attorney at the Michigan Judicial Institute. There she wrote the first edition of the Michigan Adoption bench book, which serves as a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to adoptive proceedings. “Bench books are not only for the judges, but for court personnel, attorneys, anyone who  needs to know. It has a summary of the law, the case law. So, for example as far as adoption, if you want to figure out the legal procedures for identifying the father, you can find it quickly in the bench book.” She says the bench books are all online now, to make that process even speedier, and the large hard-copy binders are rarer these days.

Warner also helped write or revise other bench books, including those on child protective proceedings, contempt of court, domestic violence, and juvenile justice.

When she moved to Trial Court Services in 2005, she became a management analyst, with a particular emphasis on the Family Division. In that position, she performed many of the duties she would like people to understand that Trial Court Services does: leading work groups and committees, presenting to related organizations, investigating pending court rules and legislation, as well as analyzing emergent situations with a view to proposing such rules or legislation.

When the director position came open, Warner applied and went through an interview process. State Court Administrator Chad Schmucker says she was a “natural choice.” He continued, “She has worked with the trial courts for many years and knows how they function. Courts that want to take their performance to the next level will benefit by her expertise.”

Since replacing long-serving court administrator Carl Gromek almost exactly a year ago, Schmucker has put an emphasis on performance measures, aligning with Michigan Governor Snyder’s administration.
Warner had gained expertise on measuring performance during her years at Trial Court Services — in particular when she served as part of the  staff facilitating a Performance Measures Committee, which was chaired by Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan.

She refers to Kent County as an “innovator” in performance measures.

Judge Sullivan, modestly, gives credit for that to Circuit Court Administrator Jack Roedema, as well as to the administration of Kent County itself, while Warner emphasizes Sullivan’s own contribution.
Warner assisted in writing the resulting report, Trial Court Performance Measures Committee Report.

The committee ran pilot performance-measure programs in four courts around the state — the Barry County Trial Court, the 37th Circuit Court (Calhoun County), the Ogemaw County Probate Court, and the 14A District Court (Washtenaw County, excluding the city of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township) — each of which volunteered to test one or more of the National Center for State Court’s CourTools.
The CourTools measuring Clearance Rates, Time to Disposition, Age of Active Pending Caseload, Trial Date Certainty, Reliability and Integrity of Case Files,  Collection of Monetary Penalties, and Effective Use of Jurors were part of the trial.

The committee concluded that not all of the CourTools are equally useful. “We didn’t necessarily recommend all of them,” Sullivan comments. “We found out through the pilot project that some are kind of unworkable, and others are a bit easier. The idea is to leave it up to the individual courts, to let them choose themselves what they want to measure.”

As Sullivan points out, some court employees, including judges, may take a dim view of performance measures, fearing that the outcomes might be used in a negative way.  Ensuring that the courts are able to choose which performance measures to utilize may address their misgivings.

“There’s some resistance, some misunderstanding,” says Judge Sullivan. “The way I see it, they’re good for the courts themselves, as long as you don’t see it as being used to show people in a negative light, but instead to measure what they’re actually doing.”

Indeed, the report attempts to defuse those issues, especially now that the SCAO has mandated that all courts institute performance measures. The report’s Background section states, “...there is a fear that performance measures will be intentionally or unintentionally miscalculated or misused. Efforts must be made to ensure that calculations are fair and accurate and placed into context. A court that aggressively enforces court-ordered payments may still see a drop in its collection rates simply due to a weak economy.”

As with other services, Warner will be tasked with helping courts fit the performance measurement process, and the tools, to their needs — a charge she looks forward to.

She also intends to devote staff time, as well as her own, to publicizing all that Trial Court Services can do for courts, through such methods as getting out and making presentations to court professional organizations. From docket and caseload analysis, to starting drug court programs, to analyzing how many jurors should be called in order to make effective use of their time, Trial Court Services can take a broad systems perspective — or make a detailed and specific review.

“I want to change how the courts see us and how many know what we do,” says Warner. “One of the most rewarding parts of my job has been when we sit down with them, and they say, this was great. It’s almost like they’re shocked that they learned so much from it – to see that something really positive can come out of asking SCAO to visit.”