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State courts to stay closed to most in-person hearings through May, no jury trials until at least July

The Tennessee Supreme Court is allowing for individual judicial districts to come up with plans to loosen some of the in-person rules in non-emergency cases.

TENNESSEE, USA — The Tennessee Supreme Court is extending orders to suspend in-person proceedings through May but said Friday it wants to see written plans by individual judicial districts if they want to loosen restrictions on some hearings.

"Each plan should contain guidelines and restrictions designed to minimize to the greatest extent possible the risk of the spread of COVID-19 from in-person court proceedings. The written plans may include different guidelines and restrictions for different courts or counties within a judicial district," the order states.

Judicial districts do have the option of sticking with the court's original order if they want.

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"The presiding judge or the designee of the presiding judge of each judicial district shall submit its written plan to the Administrative Office of the Courts for approval by the Chief Justice," the order states.

The court first suspended in-person court hearings in Tennessee on March 13 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition Friday to generally extending its suspension order, the high court also said all jury trials will be suspended through Friday, July 3, 2020. Any exceptions must be based on extraordinary circumstances and approved by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins.

Officials said courts are encouraged to continue and even increase the use of telephone, teleconferencing, email, video conferencing or other means that don't involve in-person contact.

"All of these methods should be the preferred option over in-person court proceedings," the order states.

Many courts already have been doing just that -- working remotely with attorneys and defendants to conduct routine business. In Knox County, for example, judges have been taking pleas in cooperation with the prosecution and the defense as inmates take part by video from the jail.

Clerical offices have continued to operate, but under a new order from Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, some judicial clerical personnel are going to be furloughed for eight weeks starting in early May.

In its new order, the Tennessee Supreme Court says a loosening of restrictions can occur in "some" non-emergency cases.

Any Tennessee state or local rule, criminal or civil, that impedes a judge’s or court clerk’s ability to utilize available technologies to limit in-person contact is suspended through Sunday, May 31, 2020, according to officials.

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