The Tennessee Supreme Court this week reiterated an order stating that all state courts will remain open during the coronavirus outbreak, but extending the suspension of most in-person judicial proceedings through April 30.
Local judges are also taking steps to assist with cases scheduled in April as authorities respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
On March 13, Chief Justice Jeff 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.
An order issued Wednesday by the state Supreme Court extends the March 13 order to April 30.
The order makes several clarifications and “key additions,” a news release said.
The order applies to state and local Tennessee courts, including appellate, trial, general sessions, juvenile, and municipal courts.
“The court has been monitoring the public health crisis very closely, and it is clear we need to extend the order,” Bivens said in the release. “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.”
In addition to extending the suspension of most in-court proceedings to April 30, the order instructs judges not to take action to move forward cases involving eviction, ejectment, or displacement except in exceptional circumstances.
The order also includes alternatives for notarizing documents; slightly modifies the list of exceptions to the suspension of in-person hearings; 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.
The order directs the presiding judge in each judicial district to submit a plan for a reduction in 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.
Local law enforcement agencies have been issuing summonses to defendants charged with certain types of non-violent offenses to help keep the Greene County Detention Center and Workhouse population at manageable levels.
“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.”
The order includes a list of exceptions including proceedings necessary to protect constitutional rights of criminal defendants, including bond-related matters, preliminary hearings for incarcerated individuals, and plea agreements for incarcerated individuals.
It also lists exceptions for proceedings related to relief from abuse, including but not limited to orders of protection; proceedings related to statutory order of protection hearings after entry of an ex parte order necessary to satisfy any due process concerns; proceedings related to emergency child custody or visitation orders; and proceedings related to the voluntary surrender of parental rights.
Exceptions also include settlements involving a minor or a person with a disability; Department of Children’s Services emergency matters related to child safety, placement, permanency, or federal funding for children in foster care; proceedings related to petitions for temporary injunctive relief; proceedings related to emergency mental health orders; and proceedings related to emergency protection of elderly or vulnerable persons.
Another exception covers all proceedings directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The state Supreme Court Order includes other provisions “to help alleviate hardships or unintended consequences caused by the suspension of non-essential, in-person proceedings.”
Deadlines set forth in court rules, statutes, and administrative rules, including statutes of limitations, that are set to expire between March 13 and April 30, are extended through May 6, and orders of protection that would expire between March 13 and April 30, are extended until May 6.
The order “strongly encourages court proceedings by telephone, video, teleconferencing, email, or other means that do not involve in-person contact,” the news release said.
The court’s order suspends any Tennessee rule, criminal or civil, that limits a judge’s or clerk’s ability to use available technologies, including telephone conferences, video conferences, and video arraignments, “that can help limit in-person contact.”
The order also does not affect a court’s consideration of civil or criminal matters that can be resolved without an in-person proceeding, the release said.
“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,” he said. “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.”
LETTER TO LAWYERS
Alex E. Pearson, 3rd Judicial District Circuit Court judge, is scheduled to hear criminal cases in April in Greene County.
Pearson addressed a letter this week to all lawyers scheduled to appear in court on behalf of clients informing them of temporary procedural changes.
“As you all are aware, the Tennessee Supreme Court has currently limited the types of in-court matters that we can conduct given the (novel coronavirus) that is currently sweeping our nation as well as most of the rest of the world. It is my belief that the limiting order is likely to be extended to cover part or possibly all of April,” Pearson wrote.
Pearson wrote that if the limitation on in-court appearances is extended, then April 2 will remain the criminal announcement date for Greene County, and all announcements must occur on that date.
But in response to COVID-19, Pearson wrote that lawyers and defendants do not have to appear in court.
“I am waiving the physical appearance of both the attorneys and their clients to comply with the limitations ordered by the Tennessee Supreme Court” and instead will take all announcements via fax or email.
Pearson will be present at 9 a.m. April 2 in the Greene County Courthouse to accept any guilty pleas of individuals in jail.
“Unfortunately, I will not be able to accept guilty pleas of individuals that are not in custody,” Pearson wrote.
All other cases announced as a plea on April 2 will be set for plea instead on Aug. 21, in Greene County.
“This delay, hopefully, will see us past the current health concerns associated with COVID-19,” Pearson wrote.
Pearson wrote that if the Tennessee Supreme Court extends the order until the end of April and a client wants a trial during the April term, “then the case will be continued until an August 2020 date except in certain circumstances which will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the client’s interests, lawyer’s interests, as well as the public’s interests are being properly protected.”
“I greatly appreciate your cooperation and understanding as we go through the difficulties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that we all are currently facing. These changes are designed to comply with the Tennessee Supreme Court’s order as well as to keep you, your client, and the public at large as safe as possible from the COVID-19 virus,” Pearson wrote.