By Jill Penley
On December 22, in response to the increase in coronavirus cases across the state, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an Order reinstating the suspension of most in-person hearings from December 28, 2020, to January 29, 2021. Court clerk offices remain accessible, the Order provides a list of exceptions for emergencies, and courts across the state are encouraged to utilize virtual proceedings as much as possible. In the past several weeks, multiple judicial districts, counties, and courts have already limited in-person proceedings because of coronavirus outbreaks in their courtrooms or communities.
“Everyone is tired and frustrated with this disease, but the statistics show it is unrelenting, and we must be more vigilant,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “Judges across the state have done a good job overall of quickly adapting to new technologies to provide virtual proceedings and to ensure justice is served in urgent situations. We are hopeful a wider distribution of the vaccine is on the horizon, and we need to take these extra precautions to get us there safely while maintaining accessibility to the court system.”
On March 13, Chief Justice Bivins declared a state of emergency for the judicial branch, and the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an Order Suspending In-Person Court Proceedings until March 31. Since that first Order, the Supreme Court has issued seven additional Orders related to court operations during the pandemic.
The latest Order applies statewide to all municipal, juvenile, general sessions, trial, and appellate courts and court clerks’ offices except administrative courts within the executive branch and federal courts and federal court clerks’ offices located in Tennessee.
Local courts are also affected. “Our dockets are getting backed up,” said Melissa Holloway, Johnson County Circuit Court Clerk. “This has put us at least three months behind.”
Holloway plans to post docket reschedules on the door of the Johnson County Courthouse as well as the Tennessee Supreme Court order any related order issued by the Tennessee First Judicial District. The Supreme Court order does include a limited list of exceptions to in-person proceedings.
“All inmates will still be arraigned,” explained Holloway, who also advises Orders of Protection and emergency custody cases will also be heard. “We have also been given special permission from the Supreme Court to have the jury trial for the first of the six charges with murder the last week of January,” said Holloway, who also confirms the grand jury will convene on January 11.”
The Johnson County Chancery Court’s docket is reportedly the most current in the state, with no old cases pending. As a result, the Chancery Court is able to defer some cases without causing a backlog. Most cases, however, are moving forward as Chancellor John Rambo and Clerk and Master Sherrie Fenner have made arrangements to hear most of the January docket by Zoom hearings. “The Chancellor and I have notified the attorneys to be prepared to try their cases via Zoom video conference,” explained Fenner. “We have also implemented procedures to allow individuals without an attorney to appear in court thru video conferencing. Throughout this pandemic, we have safely held court, and we will continue to provide the public with access to the Chancery Court so cases will be timely heard.”
According to Fenner, the Chancery Court and the Clerk and Master’s office have remained open throughout the pandemic and will stay open, working regular hours to serve Johnson County. The Supreme Court Order, in fact, strongly encourages court proceedings by telephone, video, teleconferencing, email, or other means that do not involve in-person contact. Additionally, the Court’s Order suspends any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies.
Since March, almost 10,000 virtual meetings and proceedings have been held through Zoom licenses issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts to users statewide. This figure captures a portion of the virtual proceedings being held because some courts use other technologies or licenses issued through their county or other entity. The AOC has also deployed almost $2 million in computer hardware and software and other pandemic-related equipment to courts in the state.
“This is by far the most disruptive and stressful time for the judiciary across the state. The impact of this pandemic is unprecedented,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “Judges and court staff have been working far out of their comfort zones for months, and the Supreme Court greatly appreciates their cooperation, innovation, and resilience during these trying times.