An order by the Tennessee Supreme Court eases current restrictions on in-person proceedings beginning in March, but court officials continue to take all possible precautions going forward to ease concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest order is the ninth issued by the Supreme Court related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Orders issued in December and January came during the height of the surge in virus cases across the state, suspending most in-person hearings, with some exceptions, through March 31.
“Because of the recent and continuing decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, the Supreme Court is lifting restrictions on non-jury in-person proceedings earlier than expected,” a news release said.
The new order lifts the suspension of in-person court proceedings in termination of parental rights cases on March 1.
It also lifts the suspension of all other non-jury in-person court proceedings in all state and local courts in Tennessee. That includes municipal, juvenile, general sessions, trial, and appellate courts as of March 15.
The order preserves the suspension of all jury trials through March 31, subject only to exceptions that may be granted by the Supreme Court chief justice on a case-by-case basis. The next Criminal Court trial term in Greene County is in May, making it likely that trials will be held if the coronavirus pandemic continues to subside.
“I am glad to see the Tennessee Supreme Court is starting to lift some of the restrictions placed on state and local courts,” Greene County Circuit Court Clerk Chris Shepard said.
RETURN TO THE NEW NORMAL
Shepard said that currently, individuals summoned to court must wait outside. They are then called, in turn, by court security “on a case-by-case basis.”
“I don’t feel like everyone will be allowed back in the courtroom at the same time right now, like we did pre-COVID, but hopefully we can let more and more folks in as we move forward,” Shepard said. “We do not have any jury trials scheduled for March, but we do have cases set for trial in the upcoming months, and hopefully we can get those matters heard.”
There is a significant backlog of pending cases in criminal and other Greene County courts.
“We have rescheduled so many cases, sometimes two and three times, that dockets have filled up, and cases are being pushed farther and farther out. My judges and staff have done an excellent job working together to make sure everyone gets their case before a judge in a timely manner,” Shepard said.
He said that when a case is reset, each party involved gets notice by a letter of continuance from the presiding judge.
“If a case has 10 individuals involved, then 10 letters get mailed out. It’s a lot of work and a lot of paper. I’m ready for that trend to cease, so we can get back on get back on track, and hold court on the original day scheduled,” Shepard said.
Most judges in Tennessee have adjusted to holding virtual hearings. Court business by Zoom and similar apps has helped to move some cases along in the legal system, but lawyers and others integral to the process acknowledge hearing cases virtually is lacking in many respects, including face-to-face communication.
If courts elect to hold in-person hearings, they must continue to follow judicial reopening plans approved in 2020.
The order continues to require face coverings in the courthouse.
Lawyers, litigants, and others “should familiarize themselves with the order’s quarantine requirements in cases of exposure or a positive test,” the order states.
Even with the easing of restrictions, the state Supreme Court still encourages courts to hold virtual proceedings whenever practical.
Since March 2020, Tennessee courts have held over 11,000 virtual meetings and proceedings. Additionally, Supreme Court orders, which are not affected by the most recent order, suspend “any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes any judge’s or court’s ability to utilize available technologies.”
There have been some useful developments from innovations introduced as the court system adjusted to COVID-19 restrictions.
“One positive I have seen evolve as a result of restrictions put into place for the courts is the use of Zoom and video conferencing technology. Most circuit judges are hearing a few non-contested matters via Zoom,” Shepard said.
If testimony is not needed and all parties are in agreement, judges “can sign prepared orders and keep individuals from having to be seen in person,” he said.
“Credit card and online payments are also on the rise. Keeping funds coming in is a necessity for any business,” Shepard said.
Shepard said the Circuit Court Clerk’s office generates a large amount of revenue for the general fund, which can help alleviate tax increases to the public.
“I feel the key to making sure we don’t fall behind the curve judicially and financially here in the Circuit Court clerk’s office is planning for the future by keeping up with the latest technology and trends that have a positive effect on everyone that the court system touches here in Greene County,” Shepard said.
Keeping the court system running has been a cooperative venture among many people.
Circuit Court Judge Beth Boniface, in Greeneville Tuesday to swear in new Greene County Grand Jury foreman Ron Metcalfe Jr., said after the ceremony that the court system has been flexible in making adjustments during the pandemic.
“Absolutely. I think we’ve been able to keep the cases moving at a very good pace,” Boniface said.
Boniface said that the improving pandemic situation may allow for the backlog of civil cases on the dockets in the 3rd Judicial District and throughout Tennessee to be addressed. The 3rd Judicial District includes Greene, Hancock, Hawkins and Hamblen counties.
Boniface, whose office is in Morristown but who frequently presides over cases in Greeneville, has had ample opportunities to observe the efficiency of operations in Greene County.
“The court staff here and security has been great about keeping everyone socially distanced and safe,” Boniface said.
It takes a united effort to keep the court system functioning. That sense of community is reflected in people like Metcalfe, whose late father Ronnie Metcalfe served as Greene County Grand Jury foreman for nearly 30 years. Ron Metcalfe expressed his willingness to continue the tradition
“I told (Shepard) I would be happy to serve,” Metcalfe said.
Metcalfe was asked to continue in the same capacity as his father by Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr.
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” he said Tuesday.
The Greene County Grand Jury next convenes on March 15 as the legal system moves forward during the pandemic.