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Trials in the Time of Covid

GEORGIA JURY TRIALS SET TO (GRADUALLY) RESUME

As we are all painfully aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought widespread havoc in 2020, threatening the health and livelihood of millions of our fellow citizens. The widespread disruption has spared few institutions, and unfortunately, judicial proceedings in Georgia are among the operations that have been deeply affected.

On March 14, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Harold David Melton, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, issued an order declaring a statewide judicial emergency. Among other things, the Chief Justice’s order immediately halted all pending jury trials. The order has since been extended seven times, with modifications, through subsequent orders issued on April 6, May 11, June 12, July 10, August 11, September 10, and October 10, 2020. The first six of these orders continued the blanket suspension of all jury trials.

That is about to change. The Chief Justice’s latest order, which was issued on October 10, has ended the suspension of jury trials that has been in effect since March 14. In this most recent order order, the Chief Judge wrote, “That blanket prohibition cannot continue, even though the pandemic continues, because our judicial system, and the criminal justice system in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by trial, and our trial courts have accumulated many cases that are awaiting trial.”

The Georgia courts have therefore recognized that the justice system must continue to function despite public health concerns, that jury trials are an essential and constitutionally guaranteed right, and that parties with cases before the courts cannot be required to wait indefinitely for a fair trial.

Thus, the latest order provides the Chief Judge of each trial court the discretion to resume jury trials if doing so can be accomplished safely and in accordance with a jury trial plan. For the past several months, there has been in place a statewide Judicial COVID-19 task force consisting of judges and lawyers who have been asked to develop guidelines for the safe resumption of in-person court proceedings. These guidelines, which are extensive, include provisions regarding the use of masks, the reconfiguring of courtrooms and chairs, installation of plexiglass barriers, use of markers to ensure social distancing, routine replacement of air filters, and methods for ensuring safe public access to court proceedings. The guidelines themselves are available at https://www.gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Guidance-for-Resuming-Jury-Trials_As-Issued.pdf.

Chief Justice Melton’s September 10 order also authorized the creation of a local committee in each county to develop county-specific guidelines under which jury trials can resume safely. Each county must have in place its own plan based on the statewide guidelines before jury trials may begin.

“From the beginning of this emergency – and even earlier – we have been preparing for this day,” Chief Justice Melton said. “We have put into place rigorous safety protocols for grand jury proceedings and jury trials because we understand that the public must have confidence to come and serve on juries. It is paramount to all our judges that our citizens realize that their safety has been thoroughly considered.”

Because of the time required to summon jurors for service, trials themselves will not actually begin until a month or more after the process for restarting them begins in a particular county or court. In addition, there is a substantial backlog of cases that were put on-hold during the spring and summer months, which means that some further delays are, unfortunately, inevitable. Also, because of ongoing public health precautions, trials will not occur at the scale or with the speed they occurred before the pandemic. Thus, many statutory deadlines based on indictments and jury trials, which were suspended during the early days of the pandemic, will remain on-hold while the courts work through the backlog of cases. Nevertheless, despite the ongoing need for precautions, the Supreme Court’s latest order provides reason to believe that the judicial system is moving toward ultimately resuming normal operations.

“At the beginning of this emergency, we all hoped, and maybe even assumed, that this pandemic would come to a relatively quick end,” Chief Justice Melton said. “The right to a trial by a jury of our fellow citizens, in both civil and criminal cases, is fundamental to the American justice system. It is written into our Constitution. To delay that process has made a difficult time more difficult for everybody involved in our justice system – litigants, victims, witnesses, lawyers, judges, and jurors. We must move forward, and I am confident that due to the hard work of so many judges, lawyers, and support staff, we are ready to do so while protecting the safety of all who participate through strict rules and adherence to public safety guidelines.”

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