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Judges Honor Chief Justice Bivins For His Leadership During The Pandemic

The trial judges from across Tennessee recently paid tribute to Chief Justice Jeff Bivins for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The chief justice is the head of the judicial branch.  Since March 2020, the Supreme Court has issued ten Orders related to the pandemic that included directives for all courts statewide on issues like which types of cases should be held virtually versus in-person, rule suspensions to improve innovation, access to courts and clerk offices when physical access was limited, and more. In addition, the chief justice thoroughly reviewed reopening plans and amendments for courts at every level in all 31 judicial districts as well as working to reduce local jail populations when possible.

“We see the judicial seal every day, but I am not sure we really look at it,” Judge Stacy Street, who spoke on behalf of the judges, said. “It is lady justice surrounded by the phrase ‘let justice be done or let the heavens fall.’ Every judge in the state should be proud of this seal because that is exactly what we were able to do because of the Administrative Office of the Courts and Chief Justice Bivins.  We let justice be done. Maybe different than we have ever done it before, but we did it and we should be proud.”

Early in the pandemic, the Chief Justice held conference calls with judges from Memphis to Mountain City to field questions and concerns from judges charged with implementing the Orders while ensuring courts remained accessible and open and the constitutional rights of defendants were protected.

“It was a difficult time. It was a rough time to be the Chief Justice,” Judge Street said. “It was during those conference calls that he showed his true leadership. They didn’t have to do that. They fielded and endured those calls. They could have just put down the Orders and said ‘follow it.’ They sought out our input. We may not have agreed with some of Orders, we may not have liked some of the rules, but the fact that the person at the head of the Tennessee judiciary sought our input was amazing. For that he deserves our appreciation, our admiration, and some applause.”

Those conference calls often led to unexpected interruptions and candid moments. Judge Street presented Chief Justice Bivins with a t-shirt emblazoned with his now famous phrase “people, please mute your phones.”

Chief Justice Bivins was touched by the moment and returned the appreciation.

“The way we have weathered this storm started way before March of 2020. We came together as a family and worked together,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “As a result, although it has been a much longer process than any of us ever dreamed, we are coming out of this a stronger body. We are coming out as better people and we are coming out as better public servants for the State of Tennessee. We knew the trial judges were the ones on the front lines answering the hard questions. We kept the courts open throughout this entire pandemic while protecting the health and safety of our staffs and the people of Tennessee. Everyone in this room worked hard and stepped out of their comfort levels to use Zoom and other tools to take care of dockets.”

Since March 2020, the judicial branch has held more than 10,000 meetings on Zoom, adding up to more than 10,000,000 meeting minutes.

Chief Justice Bivins and Judge Street also recognized Administrative Office of the Courts General Counsel Rachel Harmon, who for the past 15 months has fielded thousands of emails, calls, and texts from judges asking for legal guidance on holding proceedings during the pandemic.