Knox courts open, slowly and with lots of rules

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Here’s one more reason not to go to town. Most Knox County courts opened Monday (5/11) for in-person hearings, based on a 12-page court order approved last week. The burden fell to the Public Building Authority to provide COVID-19 screening in addition to the usual security screening.

Oh yes, and set up the large and small assembly rooms for general sessions civil court, marking off rows and seats to maintain six-feet social distancing. And buy some more hand sanitizer and find a contractor to ask personal questions and take temperatures before anyone is admitted to the building.

And get somebody by the door to tell witnesses that the courtroom limit is 10 people and they can’t congregate in the lobby or even outside the door. Tell them to give you their cell phone number, go sit in their car and you’ll call them when it’s time for their testimony.

Yes, we know regular people cannot park at the City County Building. Those spaces are reserved for the people who work there every day.

And install some plexiglass sneeze guards between the court personnel and the litigants.

Jayne Burritt, administrator of the Public Building Authority, said Monday went pretty well. Knox County courts hear so many cases that a backlog has developed during the shutdown. Judges want to open, in compliance with safety guidelines.

Judge Greg McMillan is presiding judge of the 6th judicial district (Knox County, town of Farragut and city of Knoxville). In this role he submitted a modified proposal on May 5 which the state Supreme Court approved. Dr. Martha Buchanan, the county’s health officer, signed off as well. Here are the highlights:

  • Chancery Court: No jury trials until after July 3.
  • Circuit Court: Jury trials cancelled for May, June and July because there is no place for juries to deliberate while maintaining social distancing. Bench trials will resume with no more than six people in the courtroom, but not on Thursdays when Orders of Protection cases are heard.
  • Fourth Circuit (divorce) – Shall continue to hear cases as scheduled but not in-person unless the judge concludes that it’s necessary. Orders of Protection will be heard in person but only parties and their witnesses will be allowed in the building.  Morning and afternoon dockets with limited cases to allow for social distancing.
  • Criminal Court – Will continue video conferencing of inmates through May 31 and perhaps longer. Individual judge’s discretion as to whether defendant brought to court.
  • General Sessions Court – Will continue to conduct as much business as possible remotely. Those who come before the court in person – litigants, attorneys, witnesses – must wear masks. PBA or designee must screen everyone coming before the court – taking noninvasive temperature and brief interview asking about recent illness or exposure.
  • Civil Division – Opened May 11, with courtrooms limited to essential people – judge, court officers, lawyers, litigants and witnesses. Until previous order lifted, no evictions, ejections or displacement; no wage garnishments. Daily dockets staggered to start at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and noon. The civil docket processes over 20,000 cases per year and the backlog is growing daily, McMillan wrote.
  • Juvenile Court – Operates in separate facility on Division Street under Judge Tim Irwin. He opened today with a court officer handling COVID screening. The lobby will be closed and participants “allowed to wear masks” but none will be provided.

Burritt said PBA staff will not provide masks at the City County Building. PBA has contracted with Pellissippi State to provide nursing interns to take temperatures with noninvasive thermometers. She has cancelled over 500 meetings scheduled for the main and small assembly rooms from now until the end of August. The courts have reserved the rooms from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. so the evening city council and county commission meetings could be scheduled. Both are currently meeting on Zoom.

Buchanan: Not scared of questions

Dr. Martha Buchanan, Knox County Health Department director, updates Knox County Commission on the coronavirus. (file photo)

Dr. Martha Buchanan refused to take blame for the banning of a News Sentinel reporter from last Friday’s Zoom update. “That decision was not made by my staff nor myself,” she said at her Monday briefing. “The decision was made by the Knox County communications director (Mike Donila, himself a former News Sentinel reporter), and I had to honor it. … I stand by the work that we do and we welcome even the most difficult questions.” The banning put Knox County in the Washington Post.

In response to questions, Buchanan said since May 1, the health department has had 69 food complaints and 42 non-food complaints. To date, she said, no KCHD staff has tested positive for COVID-19.

Monday’s numbers: Knox County COVID-19 Cases 5/11/20 – Active Cases 64 (15 new) – Currently Hospitalized 2 – Deaths 5 – Recovered 226 –  Total Cases 295.

Previously published

Free Wi-Fi is available in the parking lots of six senior centers in Knox County. Locations: Free WiFi

Knox County and Knoxville released a three-part plan to reopen. Phase one went into effect Friday, May 1, and will allow most businesses to open with strict social distancing guidelines. Opening is optional, so check before going. The plan: COVID Reopen Corrected Chart

Knox County libraries are closed, but online service continue. Details here.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park reopening info here.

Health Department Hotline: 865-215-5555

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Info updated as it becomes available.

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