Hamilton County, TN – The Hamilton County General Sessions Court, which is where criminal defendants typically get to make their first court appearance, will be closed as of December 18. A news release issued by Hamilton County states the decision came after court personnel tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.
General Sessions will be re-opened on January 4, but until then they will hear only a few specific custody cases in the courtroom. General Sessions is also where defendants who have not been indicted make their first appearance, but for now, cases have been reset until March.
Any cases that involve defendants released from jail or cases with multiple defendants will all be reset to March, or possibly later depending on the situation. In addition, any hearings previously scheduled for January or February will also be reset. The earliest these cases will be heard is in March, but they could possibly be reset again to a later date.
Judge Gary Starnes says they have already been hard at work to reschedule thousands of cases and hearings. Starnes says that the restrictions currently being followed to slow the spread of Covid-19 mean the courts are “operating at less than 45%.”
Judges are going to continue hearing in-custody cases and cases for defendants who are currently in jail. Preliminary hearings for incarcerated defendants are currently scheduled for December 21 and 28.
Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean and Criminal Court Judge Tom Greenholtz said the clerk’s office, as well as the Hamilton County Criminal court, will remain open at this time. The Hamilton County Criminal Court has been doing virtual proceedings, and they will continue to do so. In addition, they will be operating under their normal holiday hours in the coming weeks.
However, all trials have been suspended following a Supreme Court order, and they will not be able to resume until January 31.
General Sessions Court was closed because of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases and news that hospitals in Hamilton County are getting close to their critical care capacity. Another increase in cases came after Thanksgiving weekend. Over the past few weeks, Hamilton County has seen more Covid related deaths than they have since the start of the pandemic.
During this month, intensive care beds in Athens reached 100% capacity while the city of Cleveland neared 99% capacity. The North Georgia Health District, which spans ten counties, recently hit 97% capacity.
The Hamilton County Health Department stated that possible Covid-19 exposures at county courthouses had been reported three different times in the past few weeks. The Hamilton County District Attorney’s office said they had received one complaint about a prosecutor who had been seen without a mask.
The news release did not state which courthouse personnel tested positive, or how many there were. Due to privacy laws, the DA’s office did not release any information to confirm or deny if any of their personnel were involved.
The public defender’s office stated that, as of Monday, none of their personnel had tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.