Trousdale County’s court system is back in business after weeks of postponed cases and delayed court dates in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It has not been business as usual though, as guidelines from the state have limited the number of participants at any one time.
On March 13, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order suspending in-person judicial proceedings in all but a few instances.
“For a month, we basically had no cases heard in the criminal session,” said Assistant District Attorney Ian Bratton. “We were pretty much seeing only arraignments or if there was hearing on a jailed inmate.”
The Court issued an April 24 order that allowed judicial districts to expand in-person proceedings if the judicial district submitted and received approval for a plan addressing such issues as social distancing, limiting access to the courtroom and other strategies designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Criminal Court Judge Brody Kane of the 15th Judicial District, which covers Trousdale County in addition to Macon, Smith, Jackson and Wilson counties, submitted such a plan on April 30 and received the Supreme Court’s approval.
“(I) had to prepare a plan for all the courts in the five counties in the district,” Kane said. “That’s traffic courts, general sessions, juvenile, chancery and circuit – everything.”
Kane said he met with all the judges in the district, who offered their input on how the plan should look.
Kane said during the suspension of proceedings, appearances were generally limited to jail dockets with civil cases put off until further notice. Under the Court’s order, jury trials were delayed until at least July 3.
“I have continued on business as normal but just limited to those in jail,” Kane said. “On the civil side, Chancellor (C.K.) Smith and Judge (Clara) Byrd have really been limited. They’ve done some stuff if it was one of the emergencies in the Supreme Court’s order.”
On May 27, the state court issued an order to allow 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 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 Jeffrey S. Bivins said in a press release. “But, extensions cannot go on indefinitely. Judges, of course, can extend deadlines on an individual basis when permissible.”
Appearing in court
Those having to appear in court in Trousdale County are required to check in and receive an assigned number. Based on that number, cases will be heard no more than 10 in an hour until the docket has been completed. Parties are allowed to leave until their designated time.
Under the plan only plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, clerks, court officers and court personnel are permitted inside the Justice Center. Witnesses, if required for a case, must receive court approval before being allowed inside a courtroom. Transports from Tennessee Department of Corrections facilities are currently on hold as well.
Courtrooms are routinely sanitized and social distancing remains practiced inside the courtroom as well. Masks are not mandatory under the 15th Judicial District’s plan.
“The main goal is to limit people coming into the courthouse as much as possible,” said Bratton. “We’re only allowing small groups at a time and trying to stagger those so we don’t have a large crowd in front of the courthouse itself.”
Trousdale County’s general sessions court reopened in early May with the same provisions.
“We set the cases early, the ones we knew there would be a plea deal or dismissed on costs,” said Kenny Linville, Trousdale’s general sessions judge.
Linville said the limiting of people in the courtroom was not having much of an effect on the appearance rate. The court clerk is sending certified letters to those who fail to appear, resetting their court date. A second failure to appear will lead to a bench warrant being issued.
“It worked real well… we’re trying to work through the backlog,” Linville added. “We have to remember when we’re holding cases how many people can be in the courtroom at one time.”
“Everything worked smoothly,” added Circuit Court Clerk Kim Taylor, adding that there was not much difference in the timeframe to complete the docket.
Stronger measures are being taken in other counties. In Wilson County, people seeking to enter the courthouse are to have their temperature taken before being allowed inside, according to the plan. Screening questions such as “Do you have a cough?” are being asked in Smith County before anyone enters the courtroom.
Courts have also used online meeting software such as Zoom to allow appearances as necessary. Kane said he was “very pleased” with how online court appearances have worked and said he hoped they were able to continue.
“It saves attorneys from travelling, some folks can testify from their homes,” the judge said. “I think that’s something that’s going to stick with us for good… I know I will continue to use it if it’s called for.”
Media outlets have raised concerns about a lack of provision in most judicial districts’ plans for public access. While the 15th Judicial District’s plan has no provision for media access, Kane said those requests would be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the high court should take steps to ensure the public’s right to access both video and in-person proceedings.
“Access to the courts is a fundamental right,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “There needs to be some kind of accommodation where it’s easy and clear … We know there might be restrictions, but there should be access. They need to find a way beyond barring the public.”
According to Supreme Court Rule 30, members of the media must receive permission to use television, radio, photographic or recording equipment in a courtroom.
Backlog of cases
All personnel interviewed by The Vidette agreed that there was a backlog of cases but said the system would adjust as needed to keep things rolling smoothly.
“These steps, we’re trying to do the best we can to flatten the curve,” Kane said. “There’s going to be a backlog once this goes back to normal.”
Both Kane and Linville said they were also holding more court sessions than would normally have been the case in order to tackle the number of delayed cases.
“I’m trying to be more frequent in my appearances so we can keep the docket smaller,” said Kane, who typically would be in Hartsville three times a year.
For example, two disposition dockets and one arraignment docket have been added in Trousdale County during June, according to a schedule order obtained by The Vidette.
“I may be in court five days a week for a while to get rid of the backlog,” Linville said. “Our county’s not in as bad shape as some of the bigger counties.”
Linville added that he expected more preliminary hearings, and the Trousdale County Grand Jury is scheduled to meet in June.
Bratton said there was “a bit of a backlog” in the court system with so many cases delayed during the closure of courts.
“Anyone who was out of jail, for whatever reason, their case was pushed until we could possibly see them again. We have about a month’s worth of cases that are just now being seen.”
The Supreme Court also advised that judicial districts look at the jail populations to see if certain non-violent offenders could be released.
Local jails have done so, with the Trousdale County Jail seeing its population reduced almost by half during the pandemic. Sheriff Ray Russell said his staff was using the opportunity to make repairs to the facility that had been prevented by the overcrowding situation.
“Some of the cells we haven’t been able to paint in four years, some plumbing work, some LED lights,” Russell said of work done at the jail.
Arrests have been down locally for a number of reasons, according to personnel. Misdemeanor probation violations have not been a priority for law enforcement during the pandemic and a number of arrests that might normally have required bond have instead led to the individual being released on their own recognizance.
“Across the state, a lot of (departments) aren’t picking up – especially on misdemeanor violations,” Russell said. “We’re citing into court, or giving a lighter bond.”
“We have been trying to be as favorable to the defendant as possible unless there is a risk of harm… just to keep the jail numbers down,” Bratton said. “People who were either dangerous or a flight risk; we weren’t letting them out.”
Russell added that Trousdale County had for a time virtually stopped doing transports from other counties, as there was no way to guarantee an inmate being transported did not have coronavirus.
Bratton noted that crime rates and calls to the sheriff’s office were down substantially over the last two months. Russell concurred with that assessment.
“Call volume has slowed down,” Russell said. “Property crimes are down; people are at home. All our crimes have gone down.”
“Our citizens didn’t use this as an opportunity to go out and cause trouble… We had fewer calls for domestic violence, fewer break-ins,” Bratton added.
Keeping COVID-19 out of the county jails has been a priority both for the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department, especially after the outbreak of coronavirus at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center gained national attention.
Russell said his department was using holding cells at the Justice Center to separate inmates as needed and test for COVID-19.
“We don’t have anyone coming the jail expect for workers, judicial commissioners and bondsmen,” the sheriff said. “So far, we’re doing well with what we’re doing.”
“As far as county jails in our district, we haven’t really had a problem,” Kane added.
Reach Chris Gregory at 615-374-3556 or [email protected]