It could be months or longer before coronavirus-stalled court dockets return to any semblance of normal in Tennessee's 10th and 12th judicial districts, even after a continuing decline in COVID-19 cases led the Tennessee Supreme Court to ease recent restrictions.
"Our trial dockets are obviously terribly backed up and they will be for the foreseeable future," 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump said Monday. "By the time we start trying cases again, it'll be almost a year [since the last case was tried], actually maybe a little over a year."
Crump said future trial dockets will be inflated by the backlog of cases as old cases and new ones are shuffled into court schedules.
The 10th Judicial District consists of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties, while the 12th Judicial District includes Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie and Rhea.
In the more rural 12th Judicial District the situation is not as dire, but the backlog of pending trials and felony cases in criminal court will persist on dockets for months at least, District Attorney General Mike Taylor said Monday.
"We've been handling as much as we can virtually both in sessions and circuit court and, although we've not been able to have grand juries meeting or jury trials, we've done a lot of cases on criminal information and agreed pleas," Taylor said. "Criminal information" refers to a document containing case evidence presented in court.
COVID in the office
Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump and 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said Monday that the coronavirus not only stunted court operations for nearly a year, the virus dealt out a few blows to their offices, as well.
“We’ve had eight or nine positive cases in the office and almost 30 quarantines in the office, and everybody has picked up for everybody else and moved on,” Crump said.
In the considerably smaller 12th Judicial District, Taylor said three assistant district attorneys have had the virus and three others had to be quarantined after exposure. He said seven or eight people on the district’s child support staff also had to quarantined but there were no positive cases in that office, at least.
"Circuit court is not in terrible shape," Taylor said.
But Crump and Taylor said trial dockets, which have been kind of frozen in time, could be overshadowed by the backlog in general sessions courts.
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in early 2020, the state issued restrictions that dramatically reduced court operations, suspended in-person hearings and halted jury trials. Efforts to keep misdemeanor offenders out of jail to allow for social distancing meant more of them went free on bond, citation or their own recognizance, thereby delaying some court actions. The pandemic raged into 2021 with a growing case backlog and most restrictions left in place.
Friday's supreme court order eases restrictions on in-person hearings starting March 1; lifts the suspension of all other non-jury in-person court proceedings in all state and local courts, including municipal, juvenile, general sessions, trial and appellate courts on March 15; but preserves the suspension of all jury trials through March 31.
Crump and Taylor applauded Friday's easing of restrictions but they still see a long path back to normalcy and noted the docket backup will also impact caseloads for public defenders' offices and private defense attorneys.
Criminal Court cases have been resolved outside the courtroom through pleas to criminal information as often as possible, Crump said, but the bigger problem lurks in general sessions court, partly because so many felony cases stemming from arrests in 2020 and 2021 haven't even gone before a grand jury yet.
The four-county district averages 3,000-5,000 criminal court filings and 28,000-36,000 active general sessions cases annually.
"I think the general sessions docket is going to be massive," Crump said. "In fact, I'm going to meet with my leadership team probably Wednesday to talk about restaffing general sessions and whether we need to put in additional resources," he said.
Crump's office will analyze upcoming sessions court dockets to see where staff is needed most, he said.
The district's first post-COVID criminal court trial is set for April and that case is hoped to help establish a protocol for going forward while making the situation better for future trial dockets in the meantime.
"We still have an additional month and a half before we're going to kick trials back into gear," he said.
In the more rural six-county district overseen by Taylor's office, the situation is not as dire but the backlog of cases is still looming large.
There are 24,000-26,000 criminal cases in the district's general sessions courts each year, not including traffic or other citation cases, and 1,600-1,800 indictments handled annually in the district's criminal courts, Taylor said.
"We've been handling as much as we can virtually both in sessions and circuit court and although we've not been able to have grand juries meeting or jury trials we've done a lot of cases in circuit court on criminal information and agreed pleas," he said.
"We definitely have a backlog of jury trials, no doubt about that," he said, but circuit court "is not in terrible shape."
"Our sessions docket is the one that's backing up because most of our in-person stuff has been scheduled in April, May and June. Under our order, the only ones we could hear in person were the [defendants who were] in custody," Taylor said.
"Nothing's really going to change until the first of April when we can actually start trying cases," he said.