Posted by: Anne Wirthlin on Mar 1, 2021

Journal Issue Date: March/April 2021

Journal Name: Vol. 57 No. 2

2020 was an unprecedented year for the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, as it was for all Tennesseans. The year kicked off with the Commission’s strategic planning meeting in January where Commission members worked to develop goals to strive to meet over the next two years. In early March, the same week that vicious tornadoes tore through Middle Tennessee, the Commission hosted the national Self-Represented Litigants Network conference at Vanderbilt Law School. Two weeks later, the pandemic hit Tennessee, forcing the Commission to make a quick pivot, revamping many initiatives and projects.

COVID-19 Response

Following the onset of the pandemic, the Commission displayed its ability to facilitate and organize its partners by quickly modifying its original plan for its annual #Help4TNDay celebration. The themes of Innovation and Responsiveness arose, and the Commission promoted virtual and telephonic clinics throughout April. The Commission assembled a team of more than 65 professionals and created online resources for volunteer attorneys and Tennesseans impacted by COVID-19 and the recent tornadoes.

In the spring, the Commission learned from its law school partners that many law students lost their summer clerkship and employment opportunities because of COVID-19. The Commission tapped its network of legal professionals and developed a summer fellowship program, the A2J Fellows Program, for law students to provide pro bono legal help remotely.

“The concept to build the A2J Fellows Program to pair law students with legal aid organizations, nonprofits and other partners who serve or create resources for vulnerable Tennesseans came together seamlessly,” said Justice Cornelia Clark, Tennessee Supreme Court justice and liaison to the Commission. “I was excited to speak with the Fellows during the program to hear about the valuable and much-needed work they were able to provide to their placement organizations.”

The Commission, with the leadership of the Administrative Office of the Courts, organized a statewide Evictions Summit held on Oct. 1, 2020. The Tennessee Department of Human Services and the Tennessee Housing Development Agency were also named sponsors. The Summit was designed for all stakeholders in evictions cases and matters. Participants learned about local, state and federal laws and orders on evictions enacted during the pandemic. They also had the opportunity to engage in problem-solving discussions to develop resources for both landlords and tenants to address the increasing number of pending evictions court filings.

Racial Justice Work

The Commission released its 2020 Strategic Plan in July, setting goals for the Commission to strive to meet over the next two years. For the first time, the Commission explored its role in addressing racism in the justice system as part of its Strategic Plan. Since the Commission was created in 2009, it has worked to provide equal access to the court system to all underprivileged Tennesseans.  Going forward, the Commission will refocus its efforts and address issues of racism and disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities head on.

Initial action steps the Commission undertook to identify and eliminate barriers to racial and ethnic fairness were listed in the Strategic Plan.

“The Commission’s vision is to provide collaborative leadership to create solutions and resources to ensure access to justice for ALL,” said William “Bill” Coley, Access to Justice Commission chair. “We are dedicated to working for our mission to be true for all Tennesseans, including our Black and minority communities.”

Among the initial action steps were the creation of live virtual training sessions on implicit bias, racial injustice, poverty, and related topics developed for all judicial and legal system participants. The first training in this series was Dec. 17, 2020. More than 600 people participated in this free online training event, by far the largest training event the Commission has ever sponsored.

The Commission’s Faith-Based Initiatives Committee, specifically the Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance, developed regional virtual town halls as part of its Pro Bono Faith Days celebration that takes place each October. Three town halls brought leaders together to discuss examples of racial injustice in their communities and develop action steps to address these issues. Participants also learned about existing legal resources including Help4TN.org, the Help4TN legal helpline, Tennessee Free Legal Answers, and their regional legal aid offices.

What’s To Come in 2021

The Commission will carry on its Help4TNDay celebration in April, focusing on providing virtual pro bono opportunities and civil legal services to Tennesseans. Providing assistance to landlords and tenants in evictions matters will be a key priority. The Commission will sponsor and support virtual legal clinics and develop public awareness campaigns to help Tennesseans connect with pro bono lawyers and legal resources for evictions and other legal needs.

A second priority for Help4TNDay will be to move forward with a new project of the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance, the Legal Access for All project. This initiative is designed to connect interpreters with legal service providers that serve immigrant clients and clients who speak languages other than English. The TFJA plans to recruit and maintain a pool of interpreter volunteers similar to its pool of attorney volunteers. These volunteers will take referrals from the TFJA and its partners.

The Commission will continue its racial equity work with free quarterly virtual trainings on racism, poverty and other relevant topics for access to justice, judicial and legal stakeholders. The schedule and topics will be announced throughout the year. The TFJA will continue to host virtual town halls in different communities across the state. The virtual town halls will be one of many methods the Commission will use to convene stakeholders to discuss issues of race. The Commission will examine policies that bring frustration and develop mechanisms to capture data on racial injustice.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that there are opportunities to reach people remotely in a more meaningful way. The Commission will sponsor the virtual A2J Fellows Program again this summer, offering law students an opportunity to work with legal service organizations and nonprofits that serve low-income and disadvantaged Tennesseans. Ongoing, the Commission will develop and release new resources to raise awareness of its activities and spotlight its equal justice partners across Tennessee.

More information, including the full 2020 Strategic Plan, is available on the Administrative Office of the Court’s website at www.tncourts.gov/programs/access-justice.

The mission of the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission is to provide collaborative leadership to create solutions and resources that address and eliminate barriers to justice for all. 

ANNE-LOUISE WIRTHLIN is drector of access to justice and strategic collaboration for the Administrative Office of the Courts