The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order reiterating that all Tennessee courts will remain open during the coronavirus outbreak, but extending the suspension of most in-person judicial proceedings through Apr. 30.
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. Today’s Order extends the March 13 Order to Apr. 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,” said Chief Justice Jeff Bivins. “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 Apr. 30, today’s Order also: instructs judges not to take action to move forward cases involving eviction, ejectment, or displacement except in exceptional circumstances; 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.
In addition, 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.
“Reduction in local jail populations is a critical component in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Chief Justice 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; 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; proceedings related to the voluntary surrender of parental rights; 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; proceedings related to emergency protection of elderly or vulnerable persons; proceedings directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency; and other exceptions as approved by the Chief Justice.
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. For example, deadlines set forth in court rules, statutes, and administrative rules, including statutes of limitations, that are set to expire between March 13 and Apr. 30, 2020, are extended through May 6, 2020 and orders of protection that would expire between March 13 and Apr. 30, 2020, are extended until May 6, 2020.
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 telephone, video, teleconferencing, email, or other means that do not involve in-person contact. Additionally, the Court’s Order suspends any Tennessee rule, criminal or civil, that limits a judge’s or clerk’s ability to utilize 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.
“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,” Chief Justice 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.”