Equal Justice University Honors Supreme Court During Opening Session

September 21, 2021

The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services kicked off its 44th annual Equal Justice University by honoring the Tennessee Supreme Court for its leadership and work in keeping courts open and accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. EJU is virtual again this year and the piece honoring the Court was recorded in advance when DarKenya Waller, TALS Board Chair and Chair of Equal Justice University, and Ann Pruitt, Executive Director of TALS, paid an impromptu visit to Justice Jeff Bivins, who served as chief justice for the majority of the pandemic.

“It is often said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but during a pandemic, you really do not have that luxury,” said Waller. “There were custody orders that had to go out. Orders of protection for domestic violence victims who couldn’t wait. You and your leadership with the Court helped to make that happen and the organizations that we represent recognize that and wanted to let you know.”

Watch the session honoring the court here.

Throughout the pandemic, the Supreme Court issued over 30 pandemic-related Orders and reviewed and approved reopening plans and jail reduction plans for all 31 judicial districts. The Administrative Office of the Court purchased and delivered 1,200 laptop bundles to judges across the state and provided funding to install 34 video arraignment/conferencing systems in courtrooms as well as dozens of plexi-glass barriers for courtrooms, clerk offices, and other public spaces. So far, over 22,000 Zoom sessions totaling over 10 million meeting minutes have been held on Zoom licenses issued by the AOC.

“You had to pivot on a dime to make sure courts were open and accessible. We had judges who were thinking outside of the box and holding court outside in parking lots, removing pews from courtrooms in order to socially distance, plexi-glass being installed so attorneys could conduct court and people could feel safe as they appeared before the court,” Waller said. “While it took the creativity of all of those judges, it was important that from the top, the leadership said ‘this is the direction we are going.’ Technology was implemented. Zoom was implemented. And we were able to continue to do the work.”

In recognition of his leadership, Waller and Pruitt presented Justice Bivins with a special momento.

“We think it is extraordinary and really fitting that we now get to honor you at EJU in 2021, as you have finished your term as chief. So, in recognition of your extraordinary leadership in keeping our courts open, we would like to present you with a personalized Covid can opener,” Pruitt said. “Just like you, it has all the tools to keep everything open.”

In 2016, Justice Bivins honored the Access to Justice community by being sworn in as chief at the EJU conference.

“I am just so proud of everyone involved in the process and you folks did just a tremendous job because this pandemic hit those that can’t afford attorneys even harder than anybody else,” he said. “It made it much more difficult with the generalized issues, the broadband issues and everything else. You folks just did a tremendous job of continuing what you always do and that is to make sure that these folks, our citizens, truly have access to justice.”

EJU is an annual educational event that draws lawyers, advocates, social worker professionals and pro bono attorneys involved in providing civil legal assistance across the state of Tennessee. EJU allows these professionals to earn up to 14 hours of Continuing Legal Education credit (CLEs/CEUs), as well as networking opportunities. This year’s theme is Transforming Legal Services Together: A Recipe for Recovery.

TALS vision is equal access to justice in Tennessee, while its mission is to strengthen the delivery of civil legal help to vulnerable citizens. Each fall, TALS presents the Access to Justice Awards, recognizing individuals who contributed to Tennessee's equal justice community.