Georgia chief justice: Rethink in-person court proceedings as virus rages

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Citing the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, Georgia’s chief justice on Wednesday told judges statewide they should stand ready to reverse course on resuming in-person court proceedings.

In recent weeks, some judicial circuits across the state have been getting ready to resume jury trials, which were suspended in March. But Chief Justice Harold Melton told judges to exercise caution.

“For those in-person proceedings courts decide to continue, they should do so only if they can maintain the safety of all participants,” Melton said.

Melton issued his statement after signing his ninth 30-day order extending a statewide judicial emergency. The order acknowledges that public health reports indicate that COVID-19 conditions are worsening dramatically in many parts of the state.

In his September order, Melton allowed the resumption of grand jury proceedings if authorities complied with public health guidelines. Since then, a number of jurisdictions have reconvened their grand juries.

In October, because of mounting backlogs of cases, Melton allowed for the resumption of jury trials, provided jurisdictions put together plans for how to do so safely. A number of judicial circuits have done so.

But Wednesday’s emergency order signaled a more cautious approach.

“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,” it said.

It also urged courts to conduct court proceedings remotely to the fullest extent possible.

“We recognize there is such a thing as Zoom fatigue,” Melton 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.”