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The state of our courts under COVID-19

As COVID-19 has ravished the country, hundreds of sectors of life have changed significantly, and in some cases permanently. Our court system has been hit hard as well. Several updates regarding the criminal and civil justice system have materialized since I last updated you. Below provides the current status of our courts:

1. The Georgia Supreme Court recently extended the statewide judicial emergency for the fourth time. It has been in place since the onset of COVID-19. Chief Justice Harold D. Melton has continued to extend the judicial emergency since it was first enacted on March 14.

A fifth extension is already anticipated.

Melton, like most bold leaders, has been criticized by his actions. As is almost always the case, critics with no plan of their own stand on the sidelines and refuse to get into the danger of the arena. These extensions have been prudent, carefully considered, and are meant to protect the public. Justice Melton is providing leadership under circumstances that the world has never seen.

2. The judges in the west Georgia area have taken Justice Melton’s order very seriously in battling this pandemic. Chief Judges John Simpson (Coweta Judicial Circuit), David Emerson (Douglas Circuit), and Mark Murphy (Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit), and others have shown the type of leadership and tenacity that is needed during this crisis.

Many judges have been very creative in making court appearances happen. For instance, rather than use a wait and see approach, some judges have adapted principles to the circumstances. They are the leaders. Examples of their creative leadership include video hearings, in court appearances with mandated use of masks, and doing what they can to ensure that cases pending before the court are given the proper attention.

3. However, the largest problems stem from the prohibition on criminal and civil jury trials and most grand jury trial proceedings. This is likely to continue “until September or later,” according to the order. Unfortunately, “later” is much more likely.

4. There are some problems that are difficult to see today. As the days and months pass, the right to a trial by jury, the right to have a grand jury hear serious felony cases, and the right to a speedy trial, which Melton has tried to address, cannot be suspended. It is a Constitutional right. The speedy trial issue will be the subject of a lot of litigation and motions to dismiss.

This is an added challenge to our judges, lawyers, court personnel, defendants, prosecutors, and victims. As the Constitution erodes, so does the trust that most Americans have in our justice system.

We will not allow that to happen.

5. Today, the courts are not hearing nonessential court functions and focused on the most critical needs that a court can provide such as bond hearings, emergency family violence issues, and temporary hearings involving children, alimony, and in some cases, child support.

Melton’s most recent order includes stronger language to make clear that, as Georgia’s courts move to hold more proceedings, judges have an increased responsibility to ensure the safety of all involved. 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 … including the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings and a criminal defendant’s rights to confrontation and an open courtroom,” the order states.

6. The order also encouraged courts to take advantage of technological advances to address the growing backlog of pending cases. That is happening today.

We are fortunate to have technology experts like Judge David Emerson to provide leadership in this area. I cannot remember a technology issue that he could not figure out.

7. The videoconference is here to stay in some capacity. This is perhaps the only positive aspect that is affecting the judicial system. “Zoom hearings” are being held in many different scenarios. Some of these include calendar calls, status hearings, and pleas. These hearings save a tremendous amount of money, time, and other judicial resources.

The lawyers and judges in our state confronted COVID-19 immediately and took action to protect the people and the Constitution. We are tirelessly working to find other solutions

We will not stop until every person has safe access to the courts on all legal matters.