TN Supreme Court UPDATES

July 9, 2020 - The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order requiring all persons entering a courthouse for the purpose of court-related business to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth. The face covering shall be worn at all times while in the building.

The Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court first issued an Order declaring a judicial emergency in the state on March 13, 2020. The emergency has been extended multiple times through additional Orders. The May 26 Order eased restrictions on in-person hearings, allowed for jury trials to begin after July 3, and allowed judicial districts to continue to operate under their approved plans. Today’s Order does not change those provisions and only adds a state-wide face covering requirement.  The face covering requirement is effective Monday, July 13, and continues until further order of the Court.

“The recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths required the Court to reconsider how to best keep the public, court staff, and judiciary safe while keeping courts as open and accessible as possible,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said.

The face covering requirement is consistent with directives from the Centers for Disease Control, the Tennessee Department of Health, and several Tennessee county mayors. The Order provides several exceptions, including for those under age 12 and individuals with a bona fide medical reason. Face coverings are available for free or low cost at https://tnmasksupply.com. Courthouses are also coordinating with local Tennessee Emergency Management Agency offices to have masks available.

Recent News...

February 12, 2021The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order that will ease the current restrictions on in-person proceedings starting in March. This is the ninth Order the Court has issued related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Court’s December 22, 2020, and January 15, 2021 Orders, issued during the height of the surge in COVID-19 cases across the state, suspended most in-person hearings, with exceptions, until March 31, 2021.

Because of the recent and continuing decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state, the Supreme Court is lifting restrictions on non-jury in-person proceedings earlier than expected. Specifically, today’s Order:

(1) Lifts the suspension of in-person court proceedings in termination of parental rights cases on Monday, March 1, 2021;

(2) Lifts the suspension of all other non-jury in-person court proceedings in all state and local courts in Tennessee, including but not limited to municipal, juvenile, general sessions, trial, and appellate courts on Monday, March 15, 2021; and

(3) Preserves the suspension of all jury trials through the close of business on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, subject only to exceptions that may be granted by the Chief Justice on a case-by-case basis.

If courts elect to hold in-person hearings, they must continue to follow their judicial reopening plans approved in 2020 and available here: https://www.tncourts.gov/node/6042449. In addition, face coverings continue to be required, and attorneys, litigants, and others should familiarize themselves with the Order’s quarantine requirements in cases of exposure or a positive test.

Even with the easing of restrictions, the Court still encourages courts to hold virtual proceedings whenever practical. Since March 2020, Tennessee Courts have held over 11,000 virtual meetings and proceedings. Additionally, Supreme Court Orders, which are not affected by today’s Order, have suspended any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes and judge’s or court’s ability to utilize available technologies.  Read the Order here.

January 15, 2021The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order extending the suspension of most in-person hearings to March 31, 2021. Court clerk offices remain accessible, the Order provides a list of exceptions for emergency situations, and courts across the state are encouraged to continue and increase virtual proceedings as much as possible.  The Court previously reinstated the suspension of in-person hearings on December 22, 2020 and that suspension was due to expire on January 31, 2021.  Since March, Tennessee courts have held over 10,000 virtual meetings and proceedings. Additionally, Supreme Court Orders have suspended any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies.

December 22, 2020 - 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.”