Georgia chief justice: COVID-related judicial emergency to end June 30

The Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which houses the Supreme Court of Georgia. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
The Nathan Deal Judicial Center, which houses the Supreme Court of Georgia. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Georgia’s 15-month-long statewide judicial emergency will end on June 30, according to an order signed Monday.

The emergency, brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, shut down jury trials for months and caused mountainous backlogs of criminal and civil cases in courthouses across the state. It also led to the suspension of speedy trial demands by criminal defendants and recommendations that court hearings be held remotely when possible.

Monday’s decision, made by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton, comes at a time when Georgia still lags behind most other states in the percentage of its adult population being vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51.9% of the state’s adult population has received a vaccine, well below the national average of 63.5%.

At the same time, the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Georgia have plummeted and hospitalizations are also on the decline.

“Courts and litigants across the state need to prepare for how they will operate without a statewide judicial emergency order in place,” Melton said in a statement. “It will take hard work, creativity and cooperation to get our courts back to full operations and to resolve the large backlogs of cases.”

Melton first imposed the emergency order in March 2020. This past March, he allowed the resumption of jury trials and some courts quickly began summoning prospective jurors and setting trial dates.

Even though the statewide order will be lifted, the chief judges of the state’s 49 judicial districts still have the authority to issue local emergency orders to suspend certain legal deadlines and designate different facilities for court functions, Melton said. They can also issue orders that allow some proceedings to continue to be held remotely and require people who enter a courthouse to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

“I am very proud of how nimble and committed our courts have been throughout the entire pandemic to ensure the public health of all those who come to our courts, while safeguarding the rights of Georgia’s citizens,” Melton said. “Our local courts are equipped and ready to carry the load the rest of the way.”

Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.

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