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As local governments brace for the impact of coronavirus spreading across the world and in Hamilton County, local judges are avoiding evictions. General Sessions Court Judge Christie Sell said she is hoping to balance compassion and constitutionality as she navigates her role in evictions and other court matters amid the growing pandemic.

The Tennessee Supreme Court issued a suspension of all in-person hearings until March 31, 2020, with limited exceptions. Eviction cases, also known as detainer actions, are not an exception to the order, Sell explained, meaning evictions filed after March 12, 2020, cannot be heard until after March 31, 2020, or as otherwise extended by the state.

"Because the Clerks' offices are still open, cases can still be filed but the hearings are postponed," Sell wrote in an email to the Times Free Press Saturday. "We are currently setting the eviction cases for April or later as dockets reach capacity. The delays will be mitigated by scheduling the dockets for every day of the week rather than only on Mondays as before. The eviction proceedings will be scheduled for 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. with no more than 10 cases on each docket to minimize how many people are in court at any given time."

The later dates and spread-out hearings reflect a broader goal of the county to encourage social distancing during the crisis, Austin Garrett, a chief deputy for the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, said.

"I've been in discussions with a couple of judges about what that looks like and if we can do this kind of case by case because we want people to shelter and we don't want to put a family out of a house, especially right now," Garrett said. "We want to do the right thing by the law and the people right now in this completely new scenario."

According to Sell, even some tenants that have already had eviction proceedings with judgments entered against them will be given extra time in the courts before the landlord is able to claim the property.

"At the recommendation of the Tennessee Supreme Court, the General Sessions Court has directed the Clerk's office to not allow the landlord to file the Writ of Execution without further review between the Sheriff's office and a General Sessions Court Judge," Sell said. "By telephone conference, the sheriff's office and judge will consider all of the circumstances of the eviction, including the health and well being of all persons, including tenants, occupants, neighboring tenants and the Sheriff. In some instances, proceeding with an eviction may protect neighboring tenants and must continue."

Garrett said this "triage" approach will help the county make the most practical and fair assessment, given the current circumstances, which Sell says is imperative in the legal system during this crisis.

"Unfortunately, everyone may be affected by this pandemic either medically, economically or both. We must protect the rights of individuals, while still protecting the health and well-being of all persons affected by the legal system," she told the Times Free Press. "It is difficult and with compassion for all that we navigate changes to our legal system within the scope of the law and guidance from the Supreme Court to protect everyone during this pandemic."

While neither Sell nor Garrett had an official count of evictions in process, Garrett estimated that this could affect between 15 and 25 evictions that are underway.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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