The ever-changing coronavirus situation has resulted in some procedural changes at the Greene County Courthouse.
The Tennessee Supreme Court last week issued an order extending the state of emergency and reinstating suspension of in-court proceedings.
The order suspends most in-person proceedings through Jan. 31.
The Greene County Court Clerk’s office and other court clerk offices across the state remain accessible.
In recent weeks, “multiple judicial districts, counties, and courts have already limited in-person proceedings because of coronavirus outbreaks in their courtrooms or communities,” the state Supreme Court order said.
“My office has been fortunate to only have one positive test result for COVID-19. I have had a couple employees quarantine because of possible exposure, but we have not lost any work time, or had any closures due to the virus. I am very thankful for that, and pray that trend continues here at clerk’s office,” Chris Shepard, Greene County Circuit Court clerk, said Wednesday in an email.
January, May and September are the months Criminal Court cases are scheduled to be heard in Greene County Criminal Court. Several jury trials scheduled for January may be continued.
A Greene County Grand Jury scheduled to convene on Jan. 4 has also been postponed to a date not yet determined, Shepard said.
“We kept our jurors for another four months,” Shepard said.
JURY DUTY CHANGES
Shepard said that jurors normally provide four months’ service. The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily altered that system.
“The past two jury pools that were chosen have been extended to an eight-month term,” Shepard said.
Shepard said he generally mails 250 jury notice letters.
“These individuals are chosen randomly by the software we use in the office. Potential jurors are chosen from driver license information,” he said. “In an effort to save time, and money, (Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr.) held this jury pool for another four months.
“It’s not a terrible time to serve as a juror right now,” Shepard said. “There have only been three criminal jury trials since I took office in 2018.”
The last jury trial in Greene County was in August 2019.
Shepard said that there have been no Civil Circuit Court jury trials since he became clerk.
“With new orders coming quite frequently from the Tennessee Supreme Court about trials and court proceedings, it could possibly be a few more months before we see a case being tried before a judge and jury,” Shepard said.
VIDEO HEARINGS INCREASE
Dugger will preside over limited in-person court proceedings in January.
Dugger and Circuit Court Judge Alex E. Pearson have conducted several court matters by Zoom video, Shepard said.
“I look for them to continue, and increase the use of Zoom meetings as the year progresses,” he said.
General Sessions Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. held two full days of court proceedings via Zoom in December, “and it went very smoothly,” Shepard said.
“Judge Bailey continues to use the video arraignment system for all individuals that are incarcerated and need to be arraigned,” Shepard said.
Todd Estep, assistant public defender for the 3rd Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, “was very helpful with the Zoom process. Mr. Estep and I worked closely with the (Greene County) Detention Center making sure things ran smoothly. I appreciate all the help he has given,” Shepard said.
All elements of the court system will continue to work together as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“All parties involved, including the district attorney’s office, attorneys, judges and defendants have been super-understanding and patient as we navigate through this often-challenging time the justice system is in right now,” Shepard said.
The Tennessee Supreme Court order provides a list of exceptions for emergency situations, “and courts across the state are encouraged to utilize virtual proceedings as much as possible,” it said.
The order is “designed to protect all of the participants in the judicial system and the public at large while keeping the courts open and accessible to carry out essential constitutional functions and time-sensitive proceedings.”
It is the Tennessee Supreme Court’s sixth such order related to the pandemic since a state of emergency was declared March 13 for the judicial branch.
The order suspends jury trials unless an exemption is granted by the court’s chief justice.
Jury trials were previously suspended from March 13 through July 3.
The order additionally directs judicial districts “to revisit and strictly adhere to their previously approved reopening plans.”
It states that the court’s July 9 order mandating face coverings for all persons who enter the courthouse for court-related business is still in full effect, encourages video conferencing whenever possible and reminds judges and lawyers “that they have an ethical obligation to comply with court orders and the reopening plans drafted by the judicial districts.”
The order prohibits anyone with COVID-19 from participating in an in-person proceeding.
The order also directs judges to schedule and conduct in-person hearings “in a manner that minimizes wait times in courthouse hallways, which often have limited space for social distancing.”
All safety protocols are enforced at the Greene County Courthouse, Shepard recently said.
“All patrons to the courthouse must wear a mask, and have their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer,” he said.
Masks or other facial coverings are required within Greene County governmental facilities, including the courthouse and Greene County Courthouse Annex.
“We are still under the protocols that we have followed for a while now. These protocols include limiting access to hearings to only those directly involved in the case at hand,” Shepard said.
EVICTION MORATORIUM EXTENDED
As part of its order, the state Supreme Court also extended the existing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium through the end of January for nonpayment of rent for individuals who meet certain criteria.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield signed a declaration Sept. 2 “determining that the evictions of tenants could be detrimental to public health control measures to slow the spread of (the virus) that causes COVID-19.”
A declaration form must be filled out by tenants.
“This is a federal form, not one that the Tennessee Supreme Court or the (state Administrative Office of the Courts) has created,” Supreme Court General Counsel Rachel Harmon wrote in an email to court clerks across the state.
Court clerks have the discretion to make the forms available. Shepard has done so in Greene County.
A declaration form is available at the Greene County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office at the county courthouse, 101 S. Main St.
CDC’s Eviction Moratorium Declaration Form is also available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/declaration-form.pdf.