Georgia Supreme Court holds first ‘virtual’ court session

Top row from left: Chief Justice Harold Melton and Justices David Nahmias and Keith Blackwell. Middle row, from left: Justices Michael Boggs, Nels Peterson, Sarah Warren and Charles Bethel. Bottom row, from left: Justices John Ellington and Carla Wong McMillian, Atlanta lawyer Brian Steel and Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Samuel d’Entremont. (Chris Joyner/cjoyner@ajc.com)
Top row from left: Chief Justice Harold Melton and Justices David Nahmias and Keith Blackwell. Middle row, from left: Justices Michael Boggs, Nels Peterson, Sarah Warren and Charles Bethel. Bottom row, from left: Justices John Ellington and Carla Wong McMillian, Atlanta lawyer Brian Steel and Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Samuel d’Entremont. (Chris Joyner/cjoyner@ajc.com)

With Chief Justice Harold Melton the only member in the courtroom and the other eight justices sheltering in place across the state, the Georgia Supreme Court held its first "virtual" court session on Monday.

The court heard appeals of two murder convictions — one from Gwinnett County, another from Chatham County — in oral arguments that went off without a hitch.

“I would much rather to be before the highest court in our state when appearing for oral argument,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Brian Steel, who argued the first case. “But under these horrible circumstances, I thought it went extremely well. I saw everybody. I heard everybody. It went just fine.”

Melton thanked his colleagues and the attorneys for finding a way to make it happen.

“We are committed, of course, to continuing the court’s business with as little disruption as possible during this COVID-19 crisis,” Melton said. “Thankfully, we do have the technology to make this possible.”

The court’s arguments could be watched on computer screens via the Zoom video-conferencing software. Melton was on the top left corner of the three rows of participants. His eight colleagues appeared with superimposed photos of the courtroom behind them as a backdrop. Attorneys arguing the cases were on the two bottom-right squares and could also see on the screen how much time they had remaining during their arguments.

With its first-ever “virtual” session, Georgia became at least the 13th state Supreme Court in the country to use video-conferencing for oral arguments, according to the National Center for State Courts. Courts in Florida, Idaho, Wisconsin and Wyoming will soon follow.

 

Four other state courts are using teleconferencing technology. On Tuesday, the federal appeals court in Atlanta will have its first teleconferenced arguments. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to begin hearing arguments by remote telephone hook-ups in May.

The Georgia Supreme Court is scheduled to hear three more days of arguments this week from Tuesday to Thursday, beginning at 10 a.m. Anyone interested in watching can see them live-streamed on the court’s website.

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Also Monday, Melton greeted the court's newest member, Justice Carla Wong McMillian, who was recently appointed to the bench by Gov. Brian Kemp. On April 10, Kemp swore in McMillian during a private ceremony across the street from the state Capitol, with participants following social-distancing directives.

Before letting the arguments begin, Melton told McMillian what has become an all-too-familiar refrain during the pandemic, “We look forward to sitting with you, in person, someday soon.”

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