By Chief Judge Kenneth M. Switzer, Nashville
Today is the first day of winter, and just a few days remain in the year. Much has been said about 2020, and understandably the theme overall has ranged from disappointment to sorrow. It’s been a year for reflection and reevaluating priorities. As a Court, we strived to stay positive and focused on our mission, despite the adversity.
What follows is a look back at the year, including steps taken during the pandemic to maintain operations, and lessons learned along the way.
- Procedures were altered for settlement approval hearings, going from in-person to telephone. In the 38 weeks since then, the judges approved 4,893 settlements paying $89,040,223 in benefits. In the process, we learned that we could be flexible when the circumstances warranted it.
- In-person hearings were re-instituted once the emergency order was lifted and protocols for safe in-person court appearances were adopted. We also maintained the option of on-the-record determinations and telephone hearings, and a few judges accommodated videoconference hearing requests. We learned we could problem-solve for everyone’s health and safety.
- The Bureau’s annual Education Conference adapted to the virtual format. Several judges presented, and the now familiar ethics skit re-emerged, with a timely, tongue-in-cheek look at Zoom mediation. In that skit, we realized we hadn’t lost our sense of humor.
- The annual survey of practitioners yielded overall high marks for judges’ performance. Attorneys were asked to rate them on a five-point scale. They gave the following composite ratings: legal ability: 4.7; written decisions: 4.6; temperament: 4.8; diligence: 4.8; and impartiality: 4.6. A survey of self-represented litigants yielded less positive results. So, we learned that this is an area for improvement, and we re-dedicated ourselves to better serving you where we can.
- Along these lines, the Bureau released a fully revised booklet for self-represented persons. The Court and the Appeals Board combined their two previous books into one, updating the law, using even more plain language, and inserting checklists for added ease-of-use. We learned that we can always simplify. Always.
- The Bureau Administrator, Abbie Hudgens, reappointed seven judges: Kenneth Switzer, Chief Judge, Nashville; Brian Addington, Gray; Pamela Johnson, Knoxville; Lisa Lowe, Knoxville; Thomas Wyatt, Chattanooga; Allen Phillips, Jackson; and Deana Seymour, Memphis. We’re humbled regarding what an honor it is to serve all Tennesseans. We also once again realized that the practitioners we see daily are patient, hard-working, dedicated to their clients, and committed to the system. We’re grateful for all you do.
So, if you’re still reading… it’s been a challenging year for certain, but also a productive time. We remain hopeful and soldier on into 2021.