Tennessee Courts Look To Judicial District Plans As They Expand In-Person Proceedings

June 11, 2020

Over the past few weeks, courts across the state of Tennessee have been expanding in-person proceedings pursuant to a Supreme Court Order issued April 24. That Order asked for each of the state’s 31 judicial districts to submit a plan to the Supreme Court detailing the safeguards and procedures that they would implement to minimize the risk of Covid-19 spread if in-person proceedings were expanded. Many in-person proceedings had previously been suspended by the Court in an Order from March 13, less than a week after Tennessee saw its first case of Covid-19.

The creation of these plans to increase in-person proceedings required an unprecedented level of cooperation between all court levels in each judicial district, managed by each district’s presiding judge. The plans had to account for a number of variables between different courts, including size, layout, and case load. While all courts in Tennessee have stayed open and functioning throughout the pandemic, these plans are helping to ensure the safety of everyone who enters a Tennessee courtroom as in-person proceedings gradually expand.

The Court’s April 24 order itself noted many of the safety strategies that the judicial districts would adopt, but did not dictate the specifics of these recommendations, instead allowing judges in each judicial district to decide what would work best for their courtrooms.

This fact was appreciated by presiding judges around the state, including 22nd Judicial District Circuit Court Judge J. Russell Parkes. He commended the Supreme Court for “not just adopting a cookie cutter approach” but “recognizing that every judicial district in every county and every court is different.”

“That is wonderful, because what will work in Wayne County may not work in Shelby County and Knox County,” Judge Parkes said.

Eleventh Judicial District Circuit Court Judge L. Marie Williams agreed, explaining the amount of variety within the courts in her district.

“There’s an immense amount of diversity with the way the courts are situated physically as well as how specific judges and bars interact and get their business done,” she said. “For example, here in Chattanooga, we have chancery and circuit court in what we call the old courthouse that also houses the county mayor, the register of deeds, the county clerk, all kinds of different public offices, whereas our criminal courts and general sessions courts are housed in a building in another block that has only court functions in it. Then we have our municipalities, all of which are spread out in different buildings owned by different municipalities, and we have Juvenile Courts housed in two different buildings.

“The amount of business each court has varies proportionally to the population. For example, you may have a municipality that has a need to have court once a week or once every couple of weeks as opposed to some of the other courts that are here all day every day. I think it was important for each judicial district and each court wherever they are to be able to address their own situations consistent with what the Supreme Court expected.”

Making sure that each judicial district plan accounted for the needs of all courts in that district required a high level of cooperation and coordination between judges.

“It was very unique,” 1st Judicial District Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice said. “We normally don’t have to communicate with other judges on the operation of their courts; they dictate those.”

The task was made easier by the fact that the judges in the district were all more than happy to add their input to the effort.

“We are fortunate in this district that all the judges were willing to communicate and willing to share ideas,” she said. “All were very eager, willing, and able to cooperate on the plan.”

Judge Parkes said that while he regularly consults with other judges in his district, he could not ever remember all judges putting their heads together to come up with a comprehensive plan of this kind. His district’s plan was the result of a multi-step process that included feedback from others in his district at every step. This included not only judges, but attorneys, clerks, district attorneys, support staff, and grand jury forepersons.

“It’s not just my work, it’s the work of a lot of really smart people whose first priority was opening the court system to more in-person hearings as quickly and efficiently as we can while keeping the safety of the public a top priority,” he said.

Several weeks after their districts’ plans were adopted, Judge Parkes, Judge Rice, and Judge Williams all say that courts in their district are progressing nicely.

“We are finding that giving cases a specific hearing time is helping tremendously in keeping groups of people away from the courthouse,” Judge Williams said. “We’re getting the business done, but we’re not having people in close contact with each other.”

Judge Rice chalks up much of the success of the plan in her district to court security personnel, who she said have been responsible for enforcing many of the plan’s provisions related to social distancing, such as limiting the number of people in the courtroom to 10 at a time.

“The courthouse security has made it workable and the best it could be in this district,” Judge Rice said. “They have followed the safety guidelines. They have set up lines of communication. I cannot say enough about what they have done to make this process flow smoothly.”

While she acknowledged that change can be difficult and that not everyone used to appearing in a courtroom was eager to try this new way of doing things, Judge Rice said that most people understand the need for safety precautions and have adapted well.

“I think everyone is putting forth the best effort to make this situation work and be as productive as possible,” she said. “We are very happy that things are progressing along and are looking forward to an increase in the number of persons who can come into court safely.”

Judge Parkes said that the implementation of the plan was going smoothly in the 22nd Judicial District.

“The courts seem to be functioning very well,” he said. “We stagger hearings throughout the day. We spend a lot more time scheduling matters than we once did and a lot more time communicating with lawyers and staff about scheduling than ever before. But as of yet I have not heard a complaint from lawyer or litigant about the process that is now in place.”

That process is a necessary one, he contends, and one that has reshaped the definitions of some common courtroom language.

“It’s brought about new meaning to the phrase ‘call your next witness’ because literally they’re calling their witness on the phone at many times saying Witness A is leaving and now Witness B can come in,” he said. “It’s different, but it’s the only way we could get the court system functioning again. We had litigants who needed to have their day in court and we want to accommodate them as best we can.”

The next major step in the process of returning to pre-pandemic court operations will be the resumption of jury trials in the courtroom. The Supreme Court issued an order on May 26 affirming that jury trials would be suspended until July 3. After that, courts can resume them as long as they adhere to the requisite safety guidelines.

While court operations have changed in many ways over the past several months, courts in Tennessee are still fulfilling their central role in the administration of justice. To get to this point in the process has required creativity, flexibility, and resolve on the part of judges across the state. Those are qualities that will continue to serve the Tennessee judiciary well in the months and years ahead.

“I think if you were to ask any circuit judge or sessions judge 75 days ago, ‘Will you be conducting hearings sitting in your office at a computer screen with 7 people linked together and you can see and hear each one and you’re swearing in witnesses?,’ I think they would have said, ‘Absolutely not; that’s not going happen,’” Judge Parkes said. “We’re learning things now that maybe we should have learned before. It’s forcing us to look at alternatives, and I think there are some great things we are learning that will make the system better and more efficient from this day forward.”