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Winter Wonders and Legal Matters

Snow has been falling here in East Tennessee for the past week.  It's continuing now.  The weather started with freezing rain and an ice storm, then cleared out mildly enough for people to get to the grocery store.  Now it's snowing again.

Knox County schools have been closed for a week.  Most counties in Northeast Tennessee have seen similar situations with their school systems.  I'm pretty sure every parent with a child of school age right now is beginning to find this "weather event" really old and wants their kids back in school after having a real "winter break."

One thing that bothers me repeatedly about these weather situations is the way the local courts handle closures or delays.  I've heard several speak of what happens in civilian jobs when you can't get to work--sometimes you can get written up for disciplinary action or worse.  In the legal world, if court's open, attorneys are expected to be there.  Many times closings occur on a case by case basis, and weather patterns like this can see lawyers up calling and texting every single clerk and government official to find out whether we actually have to be in court.  If there's no word or we have no communication with the clerk's office, we pull out the snow shovels, get to work, and start making the sometimes dangerous trek to the courthouse.  We do this because the clients are counting on us, and if we don't show up we as attorneys face contempt charges or potential jail time.

I've known one criminal court judge in my career who took great pride in his SUV making it through as many snow and ice conditions as possible.  His motto was "if I can make it in, anyone can make it in," and he rarely shut down the court.  It would take an act of the government or a flat-out revolt at the Bar Association to get court to close for that day.  Jurists must make the hard decisions, and his was one of the hardest.  But he made it, and we who practiced in front of him made that trek, because our clients depended on us.

Moving to Knox County brought with it a little bit of a reprieve in certain court policies.  The standing policy of the local Juvenile Court has been to shut the court down when schools are closed.  Family Court under the previous judge used to be the same way. The rationale was rather simple: if the schools are closed, the parents who need to arrange for child care should be thinking about their children first instead of repeatedly calling the clerk's office asking if court is in session. It was a simple, elegant policy, and one that worked beautifully for the parents and the attorneys practicing in those courts.

It's pretty clear that our local elected officials either can't or won't spend the levels of money necessary to prevent extended shut downs like this and assist in staving off hazardous road travel.  I'd hope that one day we can establish across the districts a unified "snow closure" policy for the courts so situations that clog phone lines and keep people--especially litigators--wondering whether to report that day can be mitigated. I understand that creating such policies will create a backlog in the court system which is already beaten to death, but our clients' interests aren't what we're taught to suborn--it's our own personal interests, and client safety needs to come first.

If you're a person with a legal matter on a day like today, make sure that you're actually having court.  Call your attorney and see if he or she has any idea whether the court is open.  If you're unrepresented, look up the Clerk of the Court's office and call them to ask if your court is still in session for the day.  If it is, then advise the Court of your current travel conditions and let them know you're going to be a little late due to the weather.  Apologize profusely while doing this.  It's one thing to be late; it's another thing to be late and not have the courtesy to inform the Court.  It's another matter--and a far worse one--to simply assume you don't have court because the local schools are close and just not tell anyone you won't be coming.  Judges don't like it when they made the effort to show and you didn't; such a predicament can mean you're facing a contempt charge or worse a warrant for your arrest on a Failure to Appear.

Until such time as we get better court closure policies for all those involved in situations like this, please exercise a little common sense and make sure you abandon your assumptions on whether your court case will move forward.  It will make your life--and the lives of those who represent you--much easier.

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