Atlanta, Dec. 9, 2020 – With the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Georgia, Chief Justice Harold D. Melton signaled today that judges should stand ready to reverse course on resuming in-person court proceedings if the spread of the virus in their area prevents them from doing so safely.
The Chief Justice made the statement in signing his ninth order extending the Statewide Judicial Emergency he first announced March 14, 2020 due to the pandemic. Today’s order is similar to orders he signed in September, October, and November, which authorized judges to begin resuming grand jury proceedings and jury trials, as long as courts did so following strict public health guidance and safeguarding the health of all those who entered the courthouse.
However, today’s order acknowledges that recent public health reports indicate that “COVID-19 conditions are worsening dramatically in many parts of the State.”
“While this order does not impose a blanket shutdown of non-essential in-person proceedings, courts should remain vigilant of changing COVID-19 conditions and be prepared to suspend jury trials as necessary and to reconsider grand jury proceedings as well,” the order says.
“For those in-person proceedings courts decide to continue, they should do so only if they can maintain the safety of all participants,” Chief Justice Melton said.
Today’s order again urges courts to conduct proceedings remotely to the fullest extent legally possible as a safer alternative to in-person proceedings. “We recognize there is such a thing as Zoom fatigue,” the Chief Justice said. “But we urge people not to get weary just yet. Now is not the time to relax, especially as we anticipate the arrival of vaccinations in the next few months.”
For those courts that conduct in-person proceedings, judges are urged to manage their case calendars to minimize wait times and avoid having groups of people congregating in the courtroom or in common areas of the courthouse where safe social distancing is difficult.
Finally, today’s order urges district attorneys to prioritize for indictment criminal cases of defendants who have been detained. Previous orders have placed a stay on the state law requirement that detained defendants must have a grand jury hearing within 90 days or be granted a bond. For detained juvenile defendants, the law normally guarantees a grand jury hearing within 180 days. “We will be lifting that stay at some point and prosecutors should be prioritizing the cases they need to present to grand juries to reduce backlogs,” Chief Justice Melton said.
Today’s order extends the judicial emergency another 30 days to Jan. 8, 2021, as state law authorizes.