Tennessee Supreme Court Reinstates Limits On In-Person Court Proceedings

Responding to the increase in coronavirus cases across the state, the Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order reinstating the suspension of most in-person hearings from December 28, 2020, to January 29, 2021. Court clerk offices remain accessible, the Order provides a list of exceptions for emergency situations, and courts across the state are encouraged to utilize virtual proceedings as much as possible.  In the past several weeks, multiple judicial districts, counties, and courts have already limited in-person proceedings because of coronavirus outbreaks in their courtrooms or communities.

“Everyone is tired and frustrated with this disease, but the statistics show it is unrelenting and we must be more vigilant,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “Judges across the state have done a good job overall of quickly adapting to new technologies to provide virtual proceedings and to ensure justice is served in urgent situations. We are hopeful a wider distribution of the vaccine is on the horizon, and we need to take these extra precautions to get us there safely while maintaining accessibility to the court system.”

On March 13, Chief Justice 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.  Since that first Order, the Supreme Court has issued seven additional Orders related to court operations during the pandemic.

Today’s Order applies statewide to all municipal, juvenile, general sessions, trial, and appellate courts and court clerks’ offices except administrative courts within the executive branch and federal courts and federal court clerks’ offices located in Tennessee. It includes a limited list of exceptions to in-person proceedings.

Any permitted in-court proceedings are limited to attorneys, parties, witnesses, security officers, court clerks, and other necessary persons, as determined by the trial judge and should be scheduled and conducted in a manner to minimize wait-time in courthouse hallways.  If other persons or media want to request access to a courtroom for an in-person hearing, they must contact the office of the judge presiding over the case at least 48 hours before the scheduled proceeding.  Judges and their staff must ensure that social distancing and other such measures are strictly observed.

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 state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies.

Since March, almost 10,000 virtual meetings and proceedings have been held through Zoom licenses issued by the Administrative Office of the Courts to users statewide. This figure captures a portion of the virtual proceedings being held because some courts are using other technologies or licenses issued through their county or other entity. The AOC has also deployed almost $2 million in computer hardware and software as well as other pandemic-related equipment to courts in the state.

“This is by far the most disruptive and stressful time for the judiciary across the state. The impact of this pandemic is unprecedented,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “Judges and court staff have been working far out of their comfort zones for months, and the Supreme Court greatly appreciates their cooperation, innovation, and resilience during these trying times.”

Read the Order here.