City courts working on plans to reopen amid coronavirus pandemic

Stock photo of a gavel.

Credit: Marilyn Nieves

Credit: Marilyn Nieves

Stock photo of a gavel.

Municipal courts in metro Atlanta have been shut for more than a month due to coronavirus. As judges and staff await reopening, they’re grappling with how to safely resume operations and chip away at a growing backlog of cases.

All courts in Georgia are currently closed under a judicial state of emergency set to expire on May 13. An order issued by the Georgia Supreme Court on March 30 allows municipal courts to expand their use of video to conduct business, but many in metro Atlanta have not chosen to do so. Instead, they are focusing on how to get back to work in person.

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Municipal courts handle low-level traffic offenses and local ordinance violations. Most misdemeanors go to State Court and all felonies go to Superior Court, and both are administered on the county level.

Many municipal courts were using video conferencing software for first appearance hearings long before the coronavirus pandemic began, but don’t expect to expand its use once court is back in session. There are too many things people need to do in person, Duluth Chief Judge Charles Barrett said.

“There are papers we need to sign. People need to talk to the solicitor,” Barrett said.

Municipal courts, including those in Duluth and Smyrna, already have cases scheduled to be heard May 14, and others are resuming in June. All are working to put in place protective measures.

Alpharetta Chief Judge Barry Zimmerman is brainstorming with his clerk, the prosecutor and court bailiffs on safety measures, as well as talking to judges and clerks in other north Fulton cities, he said.

“My court has always been open where people were in very close proximity to me, handing me things and going over to the clerk to get notices,” said Zimmerman.

Now, Public Works department staff is planning to install plexiglass with slots to slip paperwork through to protect the judge and prosecutor from the public, Zimmerman said.

The judge is also planning on social distancing in the courtroom and less cases on his court calendar each day.

College Park Municipal Court is planning on reducing the number of cases on the daily court calendar too, said court clerk Vanessa Wheeler. “And we will have people spaced further out [in the courtroom],” she said.

Smyrna is trying to figure out a safe way for conversations with the solicitor to occur. The solicitor speaks with people in court to determine whether they’re eligible for pre-trial intervention or another deal, like taking a defensive driving course in exchange for a lower fine. Municipal court solicitors usually interact with dozens of people a day at close proximity; Centers for Disease Control recommendations for people to stay six feet apart and avoid interactions with strangers will make this job more difficult. Smyrna is considering separating the solicitors from the public through a glass partition or another barrier, said Cardi McManus, clerk of court.

Duluth plans to have anyone entering the court to first sign a form affirming that they haven’t experienced symptoms, been to a “hotspot” for COVID-19 or knowingly had contact with someone sick, Barrett said. Those who have experienced symptoms or likely contact will be able to handle their case “some other way” through the clerk of court, Barrett said.

Little information was available from Atlanta’s municipal court, which handles a higher number of cases than its suburban neighbors. The court is monitoring government guidelines and protocols, spokeswoman Tialer Maxwell said in a statement.

“We are prioritizing the safety and welfare of both employees and the general public over everything else,” Maxwell said.

The weekslong pause of proceedings has created backlogs for some courts, but not all. Chamblee had to cancel 16 days of court once the judicial emergency was declared, and fewer tickets than normal have been written by local police since the city and state have been under stay-at-home orders, said Chief Judge William Brogdon. He doesn’t expect the calendar to be significantly delayed.

In Duluth, there’s a backlog of about 1,200 cases, both those that would have been heard and the addition of new cases from the period during which court has been suspended. The Duluth court calendar is full through August. If the judicial emergency is extended again past May 13, it will just get worse, Barrett said.

“What’s really critical here is that we get back into court business,” Barrett said. “The longer it goes, the more disruptive it is, the longer it takes cases to get resolved and the system is not functioning as it should. The longer it goes, the worse it gets.”

Salons and gyms are among the businesses allowed to reopen on Friday,