Supreme Court Extends Judicial Emergency to May 31, Allows Judicial Districts to Submit Plan for More In-Person Hearings

The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order that extends the judicial state of emergency until May 31, and also allows local judicial districts to develop a strategy to begin holding more in-person court proceedings in their districts. Jury trials will remain suspended until July 3, unless there are extraordinary circumstances.

On March 13 and March 25, the Supreme Court issued Orders keeping courts open, but limiting in-court proceedings until April 30, with a substantial list of exceptions and provisions encouraging courts to conduct proceedings via video or audio conference. Today’s Order extends the March 25th Order until May 31, but anticipates that judicial districts will be permitted to begin lifting some restrictions once the Supreme Court has approved the district’s plan for social distancing, limiting access to the courtroom, and other strategies designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.

“All courts in the state will continue to operate under the March 25th Order until the judicial district submits, and the court approves, a comprehensive plan for limiting the spread of the virus while conducting in-court proceedings,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said.

As with the previous Orders related to COVID-19, today’s Order applies to all state and local courts across Tennessee, including state circuit and chancery courts, general sessions courts, juvenile courts, and municipal courts.

“The facilities, resources, and circumstances of each county and judicial district greatly vary across the state, and the Court intends to give local courts the ability to expand in-person hearings if they safely can do so. What works for a juvenile court in Henry County may not work for a criminal circuit court in Shelby County or chancery court in Mountain City,” Chief Justice Bivins said. Additionally, “the Court strongly encourages all courts to continue to operate through remote proceedings such as video or audio conferencing whenever possible, even if the matter can be handled in-person in compliance with the judicial district’s approved plan. We have a long way to go in defeating this virus, and the more social distancing that can be done, the better it will be for everyone.”

The Administrative Office of the Courts has secured dozens of Zoom and WebEx accounts for judges overseeing state, general sessions, and juvenile proceedings. Judges at the state and county level and in rural and urban areas have been holding criminal, circuit, and chancery proceedings via video conference. In some instances, judges have been able to bring court reporters and court interpreters, as well as multiple attorneys for complex litigation cases with multiple litigants, into these video conferences. The Order entered today encourages courts to continue their use of these methods for keeping the courts open and running.

“I am very impressed with how judges, lawyers, and everyone in the system have quickly innovated and adapted to keep the courts open and dockets moving forward,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “The justice system cannot grind to a halt, and everyone quickly appreciated that rescheduling everything a few weeks out was not going to be a viable option. Everyday I hear stories of judges who are anything but tech savvy holding Zoom hearings and developing a new approach to getting the work done. This has been a tremendous learning opportunity, and there are going to be a lot of lessons learned about the use of technology in the courts that we can use even after this state of emergency is over.”

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 May 31, 2020, are extended through June 5, 2020 and orders of protection that would expire between March 13 and April 30, 2020, are extended until June 5, 2020.