jury trials

Jury trials suspended in Tennessee through end of January

While Gov. Bill Lee has rejected a return to more stringent government measures in response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the state Supreme Court has decided to delay all jury trials until at least the end of January.

Read the unanimous order here:

On March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court declared a state of emergency for the Judicial Branch of Tennessee government and activated a Continuity of Operations Plan for the courts of Tennessee. See Tenn. Const. Art. VI, § 1; Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-3-501 to 16-3-504 (2009); Moore-Pennoyer v. State, 515 S.W.3d 271, 276-77 (Tenn. 2017); Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49. This state of emergency constitutes a “disaster” for purposes of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-116.

On March 25, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court continued the suspension of in- person court proceedings and the extension of deadlines. On April 24, 2020, the Court modified the suspension of in-person court proceedings and extended deadlines. Under the Court’s April 24, 2020 order, the Court reviewed and approved comprehensive written plans received from the judicial districts in Tennessee to gradually begin the conduct of in-person court proceedings. On May 26, 2020, the Court extended the state  of emergency, but eased the restrictions on in-person court proceedings, including the lifting of the suspension of jury trials, subject to certain enumerated requirements. On July 9, 2020, the Court ordered the mandatory use of face coverings.

In light of the recent significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee, particularly in the rural areas of the State, and the Court’s receipt of a number of reports of instances of failure to comply with the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts by judges, attorneys, and litigants, including in some instances the appearance in open court of attorneys and litigants who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Court considers it necessary to take additional steps to protect all participants in the judicial system and the public at large. As a result, the Court orders:

  1. The suspension of all jury trials from November 23, 2020, through January 31, 2021, subject only to exceptions which may be granted by the Chief Justice on a case-by-case basis.
  2. The previously approved comprehensive written plans of the respective  judicial districts continue in full force and effect.
  3. The Court’s July 9, 2020 mandatory face coverings order remains in full force and effect and continues to apply to all persons who enter the courthouse for court-related business.
  4. As required by the previous orders of this Court and by the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts, all court matters should be conducted by means such as video conferencing and telephonic conferences, if possible, as an alternative to in-court proceedings. The Court also re- emphasizes that all in-court proceedings should be scheduled and conducted in a manner to minimize wait-time in courthouse hallways.
  5. Judges and attorneys have an ethical obligation to strictly adhere to the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts and to the provisions of all applicable orders of this Court related to COVID-19.
  6. No participant in a proceeding, including judges, lawyers, parties, witnesses, clerks and court officers, shall appear in court or in a court-related proceeding, including a deposition, who has tested positive for COVID-19 until the participant has strictly complied with the requirements of the Centers for Disease Control regarding isolation of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  7. This order applies statewide to all courts and court clerks’ offices except administrative courts within the Executive Branch and federal courts and federal court clerks’ offices located in Tennessee.

Under the terms of this order, the courts of Tennessee remain open, consistent  with the Judicial Branch’s obligation to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. Judges should work with local law enforcement and other county officials to ensure that, to the extent possible, courthouses remain accessible to carry out essential constitutional functions and time-sensitive proceedings.

Except as otherwise provided herein, the provisions of the Court’s May 26, 2020 and July 9, 2020 orders shall continue to govern, and the provisions of this order shall remain in effect until further order of this Court.

This order is intended to be interpreted broadly for protection of the public from risks associated with COVID-19.

It is so ORDERED.

TN Supreme Court: Evictions can resume next week, jury trials in July

The state Supreme Court has decreed that eviction proceedings can once again be heard starting on Monday and that jury trials can resume in July.

Here’s the full release from the state’s highest court:

The Tennessee Supreme Court today 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.

The Order is available here