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Tennessee Supreme Court extends order suspending in-person hearings amid virus

Becky Campbell • Mar 26, 2020 at 6:34 PM

Most in-person court proceedings were suspended this week for an additional month, but courts will continue to remain open as the number of novel coronavirus cases continues to climb, according to a directive issued this week by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Earlier this month, Chief Justice Jeff Bivins declared a state of emergency for the judicial branch, and the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a new order suspending in-person court proceedings until March 31. A new order issued this week extends the March 13 order to April 30 and makes several clarifications and key additions.

“The Court has been monitoring the public health crisis very closely, and it is clear we need to extend the Order,” Bivins said. “Over the past 10 days, we have had multiple conference calls and communications with judges from all levels of courts in Tennessee, and the discussions have been critical to the modifications we made in the Order. The judicial branch is working very hard to keep courts open and accessible to the work that must be done to protect Tennesseans and will continue to do so throughout this crisis.”

Locally, proceedings continued in General Sessions and Criminal Courts for people incarcerated. Court dockets were available outside the courthouse with new court dates for other offenders.

Bivins’ new order also instructs judges not to move forward cases involving eviction except in exceptional circumstances and clarifies that courthouses in Tennessee should remain open for essential hearings and filings, even if some entrances are closed or an appointment must be made to enter.

In addition, the order directs the presiding judge in each judicial district to submit a plan for reducing the local jail population. Judges had previously been directed to work with local law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders to review their local jail populations and make reductions when possible.

“Reduction in local jail populations is a critical component in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Bivins said. “There are low-risk, non-violent offenders who can safely be released and supervised by other means to reduce local jail populations. Judges, law enforcement, and attorneys must work together to identify and create an action plan to address this issue.”

In Washington County, judges worked with the detention center to release approximately 100 inmates that met the criteria set by the Supreme Court.

The court’s order includes several other provisions to help alleviate hardships or unintended consequences caused by the suspension of non-essential, in-person proceedings, including extending deadlines and orders of protection.

The order applies to state and local Tennessee courts, including appellate, trial, general sessions, juvenile, and municipal courts.

The order strongly encourages court proceedings by means that do not involve in-person contact

“Judges from around the state and the technology team at the Administrative Office of the Courts hit the ground running March 13 when it came to finding and utilizing technology in courtrooms to keep court proceedings moving,” Bivins said. “Through the AOC court security grants, approximately 30 video arraignment systems have been installed over the past two years and judges are also using WebEx, Zoom, Skype and other tools to hold hearings and meetings. Tennessee judges have proven to be innovative problem-solvers when needed. The Court greatly appreciates the flexibility and accommodations shown by all in the legal system, including court clerks, attorneys, court staff, and law enforcement personnel.”

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