Court leaders consider making virus changes permanent

More than 70,000 people have participated in virtual court hearings in Tennessee this year, according to data kept by the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, and judicial leaders could look to make permanent some of the operational changes made in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Since March, Tennessee court leaders have ordered courtrooms closed, then opened, then closed again as the coronavirus has turned in-person hearings into possible spreading events. Courts, at the direction of Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, have in many cases turned to teleconferencing technology in the meantime.

And questioned by members of the House Finance Committee this week, Administrative Office of the Courts Director Deborah Taylor Tate said the adoption of teleconferencing technology could continue even after the spread of the disease diminishes.

“If corporate America and Fortune 500 can adopt techniques … the current court structure is from the time of Andrew Jackson,” said Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle. “There’s got to be a better way to queue people and not take up all their time.”

Tate said Windle “hit the nail on the head,” adding that she would “certainly hope” that judges continue to hold some hearings virtually.

“I know the chief justice and the court have strongly urged those to continue,” she said. “We’ve transformed the court system probably by a decade in terms of all this technology.”

Tennessee court administrators used nearly $4 million in federal coronavirus relief money to outfit judges and courtrooms around the state with the technology and software needed to hold court online, she said. And nearly a year of virtual hearings, including by the Supreme Court, has led to greater public engagement, Tate said, with citizens able to tune into hearings they otherwise would not be able to watch.

Asked by another committee member whether continuing to hold court virtually after the state of emergency ends, Tate admitted it was an open question.

“These are issues that are going to be litigated,” she said.

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