Even if courts across Southeast Tennessee resume criminal trials in July as planned, the docket backup created by the novel coronavirus pandemic could hamper operations for months.
It's not just criminal trials that were planned this spring that must be rescheduled. Most criminal cases investigated since the Tennessee Supreme Court started limiting operations in mid-March are also now part of a growing backlog.
So far, the backup in the rural Chattanooga region now includes criminal cases that haven't yet gone before grand juries, motions hearings that require several people to be present in courtrooms and all the misdemeanor citations issued instead of a trip to jail that get dates in general sessions courts, prosecutors say.
Court officials across the region also say, however, that early efforts to avoid making all but the most necessary arrests and to work to resolve existing cases without trial have helped the situation.
Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump said justice system and law enforcement officials who discussed the issue in a Zoom meeting on April 29 agree "it's going to be a significant problem."
The 10th Judicial District consists of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. Crump said Bradley's caseload was already heavy before COVID-19 measures were put in place.
On April 24, the Tennessee Supreme Court extended the judicial state of emergency to May 31, from its previous sunset date of April 30, and modified its March 13 order that suspended in-person proceedings and encouraged use of video or audio conferences. The extension seeks to create a path for in-person court proceedings to resume, according to recent state court news releases.
"Assuming we go through the July 3 date that the Supreme Court set out for the closing of jury trials, you're going to have four months of jury trials at a minimum that will have to be rescheduled," Crump said. "That docket's going to be monstrous."
Another "huge influx" of cases will hit all at once "because we've had no grand juries," he said. The district's first grand jury sessions will probably begin in June.
"We're going to have to make some accommodations to make those dockets normal again. It's just going to be some long hours and a lot of lawyers doing a lot of work," he said.
Crump said the backup for his district would be noticeable for "maybe six months."
"To use a term that's maybe been overused in the last few months, we'll have our own 'curve to flatten' in terms of docket numbers," he said.
The April 24 order that keeps jury trials suspended until July 3 applies to all state and local courts. It also allows leeway to conduct some court action where safety can be maintained.
"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," state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins said in the release. Also, "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."
To help justice system officials stay on the same page, the Administrative Office of the Courts secured dozens of Zoom and WebEx accounts for judges.
In the 12th Judicial District, west of Chattanooga, dockets will be backed up but possibly not as bad as the 10th when it comes to circuit court, District Attorney General Mike Taylor said recently.
Taylor said that's partly because of a small population in the 12th district's six counties of around 150,000 people — the largest being Franklin County with a little more than 42,000 — compared with the population in the 10th district of more than 225,000 in four counties. The 12th Judicial District consists of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
REGION JUDICIAL DISTRICT COUNTIES
Ninth Judicial District: Loudon, Meigs, Morgan, Roane
10th Judicial District: Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Monroe
11th Judicial District: Hamilton
12th Judicial District: Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Rhea
14th Judicial District: Coffee
Source: Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference
"We haven't had a lot of cases building up but we will by the time the grand juries get back in operation, which will probably be in July and August," Taylor said.
Taylor joins Crump in dreading summertime when the general sessions caseload swells with citations and new charges, but he said the smaller district has been able to take some steps to mitigate COVID-19's impact in some areas.
"What we're trying to do is go through the dockets as the clerks can compile them to see which cases we can try to take care of using the Zoom technology in some of the sessions courts," Taylor said. "That's been successful in Grundy County and also in Marion County."
Taylor noted that Marion County General Sessions Judge Marshal A. Raines installed plastic shielding in his courtroom "for limited personal appearances for people that are in jail."
Marion's jail and courtrooms are housed in the same building. Officials made efforts to limit personal appearances for orders of protection, too. Circuit court officials and judges across the district have worked out scheduling for multiple plea hearings at a time to make the best use of space and officials' available time, he said.
"All in all we've done pretty well to keep it moving as best we can," he said.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney General Russell Johnson described a situation that was similar to other districts in terms of efforts to reduce jail populations and arrests by issuing citations across the district to help with exposure issues.
The Ninth Judicial District's Chattanooga area county of Meigs — the district also includes Loudon, Morgan and Roane counties — missed its March grand jury meeting.
"Since we only meet there for grand jury for one day three times a year, this will increase the cases brought at the July meeting, if we can have it," Johnson said.
"As far as General Sessions Court is concerned, [Meigs County] Judge Kasey Stokes and Clerk Darrell Davis have decided not to have any General Sessions Court until June, with the exception of incarcerated defendant hearings and emergency situations. This will inevitably lead to a backup in that court," Johnson said.
He said Meigs' situation won't be so bad in criminal court, which doesn't have as many cases.
Johnson said he was concerned about another impact on criminal justice.
"The downside to this is that districtwide, at least, we have seen an increase in overdose deaths [and] an increase in burglaries and thefts, especially with batteries being stolen from vehicles, mowers and farm equipment. These are often people who would otherwise have been incarcerated," Johnson said.
"Since folks involved in illegal drug use are deemed 'non-violent', they are in the category to not be arrested or they were released under the directive if they were already in jail," he said.
Once released, the same people can access cash — even their government stimulus checks — to buy "heroin and meth to inject, and if it is laced with fentanyl, often overdose and die," he said. "They can also be back on the streets where they are burglarizing homes and businesses and committing thefts to once again fuel their drug addiction or selling drugs to others that may end up dying."
Public defenders on the other side of criminal cases are eyeing the backup with trepidation, as well.
10th Judicial District Public Defender Richard Hughes and 12th Judicial District Public Defender Jeff Harmon say the backup is inevitable but judicial system officials will work together to protect defendants' and victims' rights.
Hughes said ongoing work to keep in-custody cases caught up will help with the coming backlog of cases involving defendants who have been released from custody.
"There is a legitimate concern about all the out-of-custody cases that have been delayed because of this," he said.
Hughes said the plan submitted to the state, if approved, will allow some of those hearings to begin taking place, possibly through videoconferencing or other technology, or limited in-person hearings so defendants, lawyers and judges can work together on sentencing hearings, pleas or uncomplicated litigation.
He said he believes that because Bradley County's businesses and industries have largely stayed in operation, the economic impact of the pandemic on residents won't create as much of a surge in demand for the public office's services there.
Harmon said public defenders' offices will see an impact from defendants who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, despite Hughes' more optimistic view.
"I told my staff there is a reckoning coming," he said, "not only in a bigger share of the docket but in bigger dockets."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.