ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's state court system is beginning to resume business even as the coronavirus pandemic continues, but the state's chief justice says there are unlikely to be any jury trials until September or later and is warning against crowded pretrial hearings.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton on Friday extended a state of judicial emergency for the fourth time, this time in an order taking effect Sunday and lasting until Aug. 11. Melton is allowed to take the measure under state law.
The new emergency reinstates deadlines for litigants to file papers beginning Tuesday. In his order, Melton says this move “will allow more pending and newly filed cases to move forward in the judicial process in an effort to return to more robust court operations.”
He's urging judges to do what they can to address cases that have been piling up since court operations shut down, including continuing to conduct online hearings. However, Melton says judges should not summon juries for civil and criminal cases and that grand juries should not meet in most cases.
In fact, the order contains stronger language about judges' duty to keep people safe, reacting to news that some judges have been resuming the practice of holding calendar calls, hearings when many litigants crowd into a courtroom for the judge to inquire about the status of their cases. Melton warned this week that judges who violate the order with improper in-person hearings could face judicial discipline.
“Courts have discretion to conduct in-person judicial proceedings, but only in compliance with public health guidance and with the requirements of the United States and Georgia constitutions and applicable statutes and court rules,” the order says in part. "No court may compel the attendance of any person for a court proceeding if the court proceeding or the court facility in which it is to be held is not in compliance with this order, including in particular large calendar calls.”
Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson died July 1 from an apparent heart attack after testing positive for COVID-19. It's unclear if the virus contributed to the death of Johnson, who was the first African American to become a judge in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit and first African American to head the Council of Superior Court Judges.
John Ott, the chief judge in the circuit, which includes Newton and Walton counties, also tested positive for the virus, as did a number of other court employees. Courthouses in both counties are closed until Wednesday for cleaning.
Judges or court workers have also tested positive in Fulton, Cobb, Henry, Douglas, Gilmer, Fannin and Ware counties, according to the Daily Report of Atlanta, with some courthouses closing for cleaning.
Dougherty County Probate Judge Nancy Stephenson died after contracting COVID-19 in the spring.