Tennessee Supreme Court extends suspension of most in-person court proceedings due to COVID-19, Georgia's remains unchanged

Gavel tile / photo courtesy of Getty Images
Gavel tile / photo courtesy of Getty Images

UPDATE: The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday extended the suspension of all in-person court proceedings to April 30 amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Courts are still to remain open, but only certain proceedings will take place in person, with as many as possible taking place remotely.

Statutes of limitations and repose that expired between March 13 and April 30 have been extended through May 6. Orders of protection and temporary injunctions that expired during the suspension are also extended through May 6.


UPDATE: Georgia's Chief Justice Harold D. Melton has also declared a statewide judicial emergency effective immediately due to the spread of the coronavirus throughout Georgia "and the potential infection of those who work in or are required to appear in our courts," according to a Saturday news release.

The order mandates that courts will remain open only to "address essential functions" and that they should "give priority to matters defined as those necessary to protect health, safety, and liberty of individuals," including domestic abuse restraining orders, juvenile court delinquency detention hearings, emergency removal matters, mental health commitment hearings, and cases "where an immediate liberty or safety concern is present requiring the attention of the court as soon as the court is available."

The move comes after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a public state of emergency.

Criminal trials in which a jury already has been empaneled will continue unless there's "good cause" to suspend the trial or declare a mistrial.

The order will run through April 13 unless it's extended, and will suspend and grant relief from judicial deadlines such as time to issue warrants and time for holding commitment hearings.

Videoconferencing will be utilized wherever possible, the release states.


ORIGINAL STORY: Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins on Friday declared a state of emergency for the state's judicial branch, ordering courts across the state to suspend all in-person proceedings until March 31 but to remain open during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Bivins' order follows Gov. Bill Lee's Thursday declaration of a state of emergency after the total number of presumed or confirmed COVID-19-infected residents doubled over the course of 24 hours. As of Friday afternoon, there was one confirmed case in Hamilton County and 26 across the state.

In Hamilton County, courts already started limiting proceedings on Thursday. But the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee - federal court - has not announced any limitations to its operation as of Friday afternoon. Other federal courts in Tennessee have, however.

Friday's order applies only to state and local Tennessee courts, including appellate, trial, general sessions, juvenile and municipal courts. It does not apply to administrative courts within the Executive Branch or the state's federal courts. And it doesn't affect civil or criminal matters that can be resolved without in-person arguments.

There are several exceptions to the suspension to protect constitutional functions and rights, which include:

- Bond-related matters and plea agreements

- Civil and criminal trials already in motion

- Orders of protection

- Temporary injunctive relief

- Issues related to the COVID-19 outbreak

- Emergency proceedings related to child custody and mental health

Bivins could approve other exceptions to the suspension.

For the proceedings that are permitted, they will be limited to attorneys, parties, witnesses, security officers and necessary persons as determined by the trial judge. Media will have to ask for permission to attend a specific case.

A judge would then determine whether journalists are a "necessary person," Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Barbara Peck said in an email.

"Each day across the State of Tennessee, thousands of people attend court proceedings in-person when they come to the courthouse as jurors, witnesses, litigants, or in another capacity," Bivins said in a statement.

But courthouse environments tend to be small and tightly packed, Bivins noted, which is the type of situations public health officials have encouraged people to avoid during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"In issuing this Order, the Court struck a balance in limiting the public's exposure to the virus with continuing essential court functions judges must provide to ensure the administration of justice," Bivins said. "We are reducing the number of people physically in the courthouse each day while ensuring judges and court clerks have the ability to continue with their constitutionally required duties."

In the event that courts are forced to shut down completely, Bivins ordered clerks and judges to remain available by phone and email during regular business hours.

Additionally, certain deadlines have been extended.

Statutes of limitations and repose that expired between March 13 and March 31 have been extended through April 6. But those that don't expire between those dates are unaffected.

Orders of protection and temporary injunctions that expired during the suspension are also extended through April 6.

"This is new territory for everyone," Bivins said. "We encourage judges, court clerks, attorneys, law enforcement, and others to work together to develop creative solutions that work for their individual jurisdictions. The goal is to limit the number of people coming into court each day while continuing to meet our duty and administer justice. We may amend this Order as the situation evolves, and we understand more about the obstacles judges and court staff are facing."

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.

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