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Michigan Supreme Court Considers Rules for Courtroom Appearances

posted on: May 10, 2009

The Michigan Supreme Court is considering adopting a guideline that would give judges wide discretion to control the appearance of witnesses testifying in state courts, but civil rights advocates said an exception should be made for religious attire, such as the face veils of Muslim women.

The court proposed the rule following a lawsuit filed in 2006 by a Hamtramck woman against a car rental company. District Judge Paul Paruk dismissed the case when Ginnah Muhammad, a Muslim, declined to remove her face veil in order to present her complaint.

Paruk said he needed to see Muhammad’s face to judge her truthfulness, but Muhammad said her faith requires her to keep her face veiled in public.

Muhammad’s lawyer, Nabih Ayad, of Canton Township, filed suit in U.S. District Court, complaining that Paruk denied Muhammad’s constitutionally guaranteed access to courts. But Judge John Feikins dismissed the case saying the issue should be decided in state courts to avoid questions about federalism.

Based on Feikins’ ruling, the state Supreme Court proposed an addition to Michigan Rule of Evidence 611, to allow state judges the wide leeway on the issue. The current guidelines do not specifically address the appearance of witnesses or other parties.

A hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in Lansing.

“The proposed amendment would clarify that a judge is entitled to establish reasonable standards regarding the appearance of parties and witnesses, to evaluate the demeanor of those individuals and to ensure accurate identification,” the staff of the state Supreme Court wrote in a comment on the proposed change.

“The Michigan Supreme Court should not slam the door of justice on a category of women just because of their religious belief,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Under the proposed rule, women who are sexually assaulted do not have their day in court if they wear a veil mandated by their religion.”

The group is urging the court to consider making exceptions for people whose clothing is dictated by their religious faith.

The veil, which some Muslim women use to cover a portion of their face, is called niqab (“ni-COB”). It is differentiated from a headscarf that some Muslim women use to cover their hair, which is known as hijab (“hi-JOB”).

The purpose for the coverings in Islam is to encourage modesty. The instruction is contained in the Quran, which says, in Arabic: “Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them, that will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed.”

“Most Muslim women who cover only cover their hair with the hijab,” said Melanie Elturk, a lawyer for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). “A minority will take it a step further and cover their face, with the exception of their eyes. Some Muslim scholars say that is mandatory, but the majority would say niqab is not.”

Civil rights advocates say the proposal could potentially deny them an array of constitutional rights to some Muslim women. More than a dozen groups, including some representing Muslims, Baptists, Jews, Protestants and women, along with Arab community and civil rights groups, have joined the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the proposal.

Two judges’ groups, the Michigan Judges Association and the Michigan District Judges Association, support the proposal.

Richard Hammer, chairman of the rules committee of the district judges association, filed a comment with the state Supreme Court noting that control over the attire of a person testifying in court, or a party to a proceeding, would be exerted for “limited relevant purposes.”

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Picture caption:
Ginnah Muhammad brought suit in the 31st District Court for the city of Hamtramck, small claims division. Judge Paul Paruk denied Muhammad’s case due to her refusal to remove her veil. (Velvet S. McNeil / The Detroit News)