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Sullivan County courts reopening within social distancing guidelines

J. H. Osborne • May 12, 2020 at 12:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — A plan has been approved by the Tennessee Supreme Court to reopen courts in Sullivan County.

The plan submitted by the 2nd Judicial District's Presiding Judge, William K. Rogers is entitled "A Graduated Return to Normalcy" and provides criteria for each court's reopening.

The maximum number of individuals allowed in each courtroom will be 10 exclusive of judges, necessary court personnel and court security. Video hearings are strongly recommended and will be utilized as much as possible. For all in-person hearings, everyone entering the courtroom will be screened to ensure they have do not have any symptoms of illness and elevated temperature taken by infrared thermometer. It is suggested the attorneys, clients and witnesses bring and wear an appropriate mask.

• Pursuant to the Supreme Court mandate, the suspension of jury trials shall remain in effect through at least Friday, July 3, 2020. Any exceptions must be based on extraordinary circumstances and approved by the chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

• The courts will encourage the use of Court proceedings as much as possible by means other than in-person proceedings. When possible, matters will be heard by telephone, or video conferencing using platforms such as Zoom, Web-Ex, Facetime, or other approved online meeting forums.

• In a first move toward normalcy, courtrooms can be utilized for dockets and in-person hearings with physical distancing maintained and a maximum gallery size of 10 individuals. For all courts, the limit of 10 people in the courtroom at any time must include attorneys. Only the judge, necessary court personnel, witness (who should be coming and going one at a time), and necessary court security are excluded from the 10-person limit. Wearing of cloth masks by staff and the public are encouraged. Court officers are charged with ensuring compliance.

• Court officers and other staff shall ensure only litigants (check the docket) and attorneys are allowed past the security screens in the front lobby. Witnesses are only allowed by exception and when called, utilizing witness holding rooms when necessary.

• Security checkpoints will be provided with infrared thermometers to take the temperature of all individuals prior to entry. Employees and the public with temperatures of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or greater should leave the premises immediately. Security will ask screening measures related to COVID-19 and have the authority to deny entry. If an individual is denied entry, they will be required to provide their name, address and phone numbers for contacting purposes. Strict medical confidentiality will be honored.

• Court officers shall post information about health precautions for attorneys, litigants and staff (such as maintaining an appropriate physical distance). Hallway and stairwell doors shall remain open, two persons maximum in elevators (elderly and disabled only), hand sanitizer shall be utilized to the extent possible. Further, the courtrooms shall be sanitized by court personnel with disinfectant spray at least three times per day. All personnel are advised to bring and wear appropriate masks over nose and mouth.

• Attorneys should advise litigants with any symptoms of illness to be tested and to stay home until they receive test results.

District 2 has four primary courthouses, each with unique characteristics and capabilities. The four primary courthouses are (1) Blountville Justice Center, which houses Criminal and Child Support Enforcement Courts; (2) Bristol Justice Center, which houses Juvenile, Civil, Municipal; Circuit and General Sessions Courts; (3) Kingsport Justice Center, which houses Juvenile, Civil, Municipal; Circuit and General Sessions Courts; and (4) Kingsport City Hall, which houses Chancery and Circuit Courts; along with Bluff City which conducts its Municipal Court in its City Hall building located in Bluff City. Each judge will be charged with establishing his or her specific guidelines within specific parameters established in the reopening order.

While some guidelines are the same for all the courts, others are specific to individual courtrooms and functions, such as these for child support cases in Blountville:

• Cases began being heard Monday via Zoom, WebEx or other approved online meeting forum.

• The magistrate will be in the second floor courtroom of the Sullivan County Justice Center in Blountville, with laptop, printer and internet capability.

• The defendant will either be in his/her attorney's office or in the grand jury meeting room of the Sullivan County Justice Center, with laptop and internet

• The assistant district attorney will join from her office in Blountville.

• Court officers will be available, with appropriate personal protection, to provide documents between the defendant and the magistrate, as well as security.

• Laptops for defendant and petitioner will be provided by Susan Russell of the district attorney's office.

• Provision for audience by petitioners is the responsibility of the support enforcement division of the district attorney's office. Until those provisions are in place, hearings will only be conducted in matters not requiring petitioners' presence.

• Cases normally heard in Kingsport on Wednesdays will be heard in Blountville as the Kingsport Justice Center is not equipped with appropriate courtroom internet access, nor is there space available for separation of parties.

The entire plan can be viewed online at https://www.tncourts.gov/node/6042449 .

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