Another order from the Tennessee Supreme Court and a Blount County judge has suspended in-person court proceedings until May.
It’s a new normal for the Blount County court system, but electronic hearings, delayed cases and a slew of other operational changes are going relatively smoothly, judges and attorneys said.
Presiding Pro Tempore Judge David Duggan signed a new order he filed Monday to extend measures designed to comply with government directives to apply social distancing in the court — no more than 10 people in a courtroom.
Now, judges and attorneys meet using computers equipped with audio and video technology that allow them to broadcast hearings from a secure room in the jail to Justice Center courtrooms.
Originally, this system was only supposed to last until Tuesday, March 31. Now it’s extended through April 30.
“It hasn’t been chaotic at all, “ Duggan said in a phone interview. “It’s worked very well.” He commended the county’s IT department in setting up the new system and said that between broadcasts and teleconferencing, court is running cleanly during the outbreak, given the circumstances.
“We’re also trying to do some non-emergency things just to keep the dockets from completely closing down,” the judge added. “Anything from just a routine irreconcilable differences divorce to a motion to dispel discovery,” these are subject to the suspension, Duggan said, but the court can still take care of them.
Teleconferencing, FaceTime live and the Zoom app.
Judges and attorneys are having to find creative ways to meet with clients and tackle cases, even some that are not constitutionally required to move forward right now.
“It’s definitely challenging,” Assistant District Attorney Ryan Desmond said. “It’s brought up a whole new set of obstacles we’ve had to address, but we’ve done a really good job as a judicial system of taking it day by day.”
The trick is to follow the new guidelines, administer justice, protect everyone’s constitutional rights simultaneously and do it all within a day’s work.
“It’s more difficult to address multiple cases at the same time,” Desmond said. That’s one of the barricades he and other attorneys have to climb over right now. “Because of the telecommunication, you only have one monitor, one camera. ... It sort of bottlenecks everything.”
Delays in how the system processes do not mean anything is canceled or laid aside, Blount judges said. Even if hearings have been put on the back burner for two months, they’re still getting reset.
“We’re simply pushing those dockets back,” Duggan said, emphasizing the court is now using recognizance bonds — some people who are arrested don’t have to pay bail, but simply sign a written promise to appear in court on the appointed date.
That’s keeping the jail from taking in too many people right now, Duggan explained, adding this was only one example of how they’re trying to smooth out the system.
Desmond addressed concerns he said he’s heard about criminals being released because COVID-19.
“While there is a current thorough assessment of potentially releasing those individuals with less serious crimes who maybe aren’t looking at significant jail time,” he said, “we’re very thorough in ensuring that anyone we believe poses a serious risk to the public, (and) we’re not going to alter our stance or position on those individuals remaining incarcerated.”