Editorial: Tennessee should reopen its courtrooms

Editorial Board • May 1, 2020 at 10:30 PM

Tennessee courtrooms were to reopen at the end of April but will now remain mostly closed through the end of May because of a Supreme Court order issued April 24. The order also stated that jury trials will remain suspended until July 3.

Why? The coronavirus didn’t go away at the end of April and won’t be gone by the end of May, or June, or perhaps through the end of the year if even then. Will justice be denied until then? Are some of those awaiting trial who are not candidates for stay-at-home programs or can’t afford bail to remain locked up for the duration? Isn’t that cruel and unreasonable for those accused but who might be found innocent?

As with the previous orders related to COVID-19, the most recent applies to all state and local courts across Tennessee, including state circuit and chancery courts, general sessions courts, juvenile courts and municipal courts. That’s true where COVID-19 has taken a stronger hold such as Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville. And it’s true where there are much fewer cases, such as everywhere else in Tennessee.

Whether local courts open should be a local decision, not a dictate from the state. As Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins stated in the order, “The facilities, resources, and circumstances of each county and judicial district greatly vary across the state, and the Court intends to give local courts the ability to expand in-person hearings if they safely can do so. What works for a juvenile court in Henry County may not work for a criminal circuit court in Shelby County or chancery court in Mountain City,” he said.

So why continue to limit all jurisdictions to only in-person hearings?

Some courts are able to operate through remote proceedings such as video or audio conferencing, but there is a growing backlog of cases in courts where there were backlogs even before COVID-19. For example, Washington County recently had about 1,300 general sessions cases and 450 criminal court cases waiting to be heard. Cases are simply being reset, and if there is a second wave of COVID-19 later this year, cases will be severely backed up statewide.

There are ways jurors can be social distanced, perhaps by spacing them in the first rows of courthouse seating, perhaps through technology.

Consumers are expected to continue to practice social distancing in so-called essential service businesses such as supermarkets, grocery stores, big-box stores, pharmacies, convenience and discount stores, banks, and even farmers markets, to name just a few. But as with our courts, so-called non-essential businesses were closed — some still are — despite that they offered the same opportunities to observe social distancing, including restaurants, bars, gun stores, construction, and even barbershops and hair and nail salons.

Tennessee must get working again. And that should include our courts.

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