Concerns rise as Tennessee courts start allowing in-person proceedings

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Plans to reopen court rooms across Tennessee are raising concerns with multiple groups, including news organizations and civil rights groups.

In-person proceedings were put on pause due to concerns of spreading COVID-19 but are soon to be underway again.

Each judicial district submitted plans on how they would operate during the pandemic and a lot of those plans limit who is allowed in the court room.

Some plans would prohibit friends, spectators or anyone without court business in the room and it is raising a lot of concern.

Memphis Attorney Lucian Pera says the unprecedented situation around the world is not an excuse for what is being submitted.

“The public has had a right to be in the courtroom,” Pera said.

Some plans have already been approved by the Supreme Court and do not provide the constitutional right of access.

Some are only allowing court personnel, parties, witnesses and attorneys into the courtoom.

Pera is now representing more than 50 organizations, including civil rights, criminal justice and news organizations.

WREG is on the list of groups not allowed in the courtroom and we are working to fight for your access to court proceedings.

A petition has been filed to get the Supreme Court to take another look at plans and request that it mandate all courts and judges allow Tennessee citizens to be present for court proceedings in some way.

The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts said it could not comment on the petition at hand.

However, The 30th Judicial District, which is Shelby County, limits your access if you’re not directly involved but does allow media to be present with a few stipulations.

“We’re risking the same types of outrage and the same types of distrust that we see with police,” Josh Spickler with Just City said.

Spickler runs a court watching program where volunteers go into courtrooms and keep an eye on what’s happening.

“You cannot have trust in your court system that it will never deliver justice fairly,” Spickler said.”That it will deliver justice to rich, the poor, the black, the white, no matter.”

Pera says he agrees.

“When we are watched, when we are available to be watched, we generally act better,” Pera said.

Both say that could mean watching court proceedings virtually. It is something some judges have been already doing in other parts of the state.

Read media guidelines for in-court proceedings in Tennessee.

Who’s involved in the petition to open courts to media:

Media associations and groups: Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, Tennessee Press Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Middle Tennessee and East Tennessee chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists.

News media organizations: The Associated Press, The Bristol Herald Courier, The Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Cleveland Daily Banner, The Daily Herald (Columbia), The Tennessean, The Ashland City Times, The Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro), The Dickson Herald, The Fairveiw Observer, The Jackson Sun, The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville), The Oak Ridger, Murfreesboro Post, Wilson Post, Gallatin News, Hendersonville Standard, Portland Sun, Robertson County Connection, Dickson Post, Cheatham County Exchange, Main Street Clarksville, Main Street Nashville, Main Street Fairview, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis), MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Nashville Public Radio, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Shelbyville Times Gazette, The Tennessee Lookout, WKRN-TV (Nashville), WBIR-TV (Knoxville), WRCB-TV (Chattanooga), WREG-TV (Memphis), WSMV-TV (Nashville), and WTVF NewsChannelFive (Nasvhille).

Good government, civil rights and criminal justice groups: American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Choosing Justice Initiative, Court Watch Nashville, Free Hearts, Interdenominational Minister’s Fellowship, Just City, The League of Women Voters of Tennessee, Nashville Community Bail Fund, No Exceptions Prison Collective, Unheard Voices Outreach and Tennessee Justice Center.

Also joining the petition is the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and two First Amendment authorities, Gautam Hans, the director of the Stanton Foundation First Amendment Clinic at Vanderbilt University Law School, and David L. Hudson, Jr., a First Amendment author and scholar and assistant professor at Belmont University School of Law.

A spread sheet of the court plans put together by the Tennessee coalition of open government

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