The Tennessee Supreme this past week issued an Order that extends the judicial state of emergency and eases restrictions imposed by previous court orders. These changes include allowing jury trials to begin after July 3 with strict protocols; allows eviction cases to be heard beginning June 1; ends deadline extensions; and allows local judicial districts to continue operating under their approved plans for expanded in-person proceedings. The Order continues to encourage remote proceedings via video or audio conference whenever possible.
Today’s Order allows jury trials to begin after July 3, 2020, if strict social distancing and capacity protocols can be met and CDC guidelines are followed. The Order also provides for six-person juries in civil cases unless a twelve-person jury is specifically requested by a party.
Deadlines in court rules, statutes, and administrative rules that were previously extended until May 31 are extended only until June 5. After this date, the Supreme Court does not anticipate any further extension of deadlines. “The point of extending deadlines was to give judges, attorneys, and litigants time to adjust to this new normal and weather this storm a bit,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “But, extensions cannot go on indefinitely. Judges, of course, can extend deadlines on an individual basis when permissible.”
The Order also lifts the broad restrictions on evictions. As of June 1, eviction cases may be heard if the landlord states under penalty of perjury that the action is not subject to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act.
The Supreme Court issued an order on April 24 that allowed judicial districts to expand in-person proceedings if the Supreme Court approved a plan submitted by the district addressing such issues as social distancing, limiting access to the courtroom, and other strategies designed to limit the spread of Covid-19 as much as possible. The majority of judicial districts are now operating under those approved plans, which are available on the TNCourts.gov website. Judicial districts that did not submit a plan are continuing to operate under the parameters set forth in the March 25 Order.
“For now, each court will continue to operate under their approved plan or the March 25 Order,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “Our top priority throughout the pandemic has been ensuring courts remain open and accessible for Tennesseans. We have worked diligently with local officials to ensure that emergency orders of protection, bond hearings, custody hearings, and other critical matters can be heard promptly. We have had to balance access to the courts with the health and safety of all participants and workers in the judicial system.
Over the past ten weeks, courts across Tennessee have continued to utilize technology to keep courts open and accessible. Dozens of courts have held their first remote proceedings via video conference, and proceedings have been live-streamed to YouTube for the first time. For example, the Tennessee Supreme Court held oral arguments via video conference twice, including a live-stream, the Court of Appeals held oral arguments via video conference, and the 20th Judicial District Chancery Court conducted hearings in a school voucher case via video conference over multiple days. In total, over 700 video proceedings have taken place on Zoom licenses managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts since the middle of April. Some counties and individual judges have also purchased their own video conferencing tools that are not managed by the AOC.
“While there certainly are some challenges, many judges are finding a lot of efficiencies and advantages to deploying remote proceedings in certain circumstances,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “Sometimes great innovation comes out of crisis and that is what is happening across the Tennessee judiciary.”
As with the previous Orders related to Covid-19, today’s Order applies to all state and local courts across Tennessee, including state circuit and chancery courts, general sessions courts, juvenile courts, and municipal courts.