Metro Atlanta courts start talks of how to resume ‘normal’ operations

Gavel. (AJC file)

Gavel. (AJC file)

If the state’s judicial emergency expires on schedule in mid-May, courts will have the option of opening their doors for normal business.

But what will a routine court session look like in the age of coronavirus, when the thousands of lawyers, judges, clerks and defendants who visit the courthouse every day must stay six feet apart?

In Gwinnett County, Superior Court Chief Judge George Hutchinson said he and other judges are brainstorming ways to make the court system run smoothly upon its return.

While some criminal calendars are continuing over video conference, Hutchinson said restarting jury trials is challenging.

READ | City courts working on plans to reopen amid coronavirus pandemic

He doesn’t expect resumption until at least July, even if it’s permitted sooner.

“In a typical week, we summon 400 jurors,” he said. “That’s not possible. It’s not smart.”

The county is looking at staggering the start of cases, and when jurors might report. Also under consideration is a proposal to call smaller jury pools to limit the time people must be there and their exposure to others.

DeKalb County is considering a staggered approach as well, said clerk of Superior Court Debra DeBerry.

Officials there have formed a task force and been in regular contact to discuss how to resume normal operations.

Effective social distancing would be “logistically almost impossible” if things just resumed as normal, DeBerry said. “You couldn’t even get them all up and down the elevator.”

Courts across the state are anticipating guidance from the state Supreme Court early next week. But even that seems unlikely to specifically address how to handle things like social distancing in jury boxes and deliberation rooms.

“There’s not a playbook for this,” DeBerry said.

READ | Metro Atlanta governments expect $600M in coronavirus aid

Cobb Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said they, too, are coming up with plans for a partial reopening.

“There does not seem to be any indication that [Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton] would entirely lift it,” Charron said of the judicial emergency order. “We think there would be some modifications. We’re looking at all those contingency plans while at the same time trying to ensure that the public and the staff that are working are being adequately protected and safety measures are in place.”

Gwinnett courts are considering partitions between jury seats and using some of the gallery space, meant for the public, to allow jurors to spread out.

“A jury box is obviously not made for social distancing,” said Gwinnett County Administrator Glenn Stephens, who added that deputies are taking temperatures before allowing people entry into the courthouse building. But he wondered whether the county has the authority to deny someone access when there is no ordinance prohibiting entry to people with a fever — especially if that person is a witness in a trial.

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Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher juror use of galleries is under consideration there.

Asked how he’ll decide when it’s safe to compel roughly 1,000 Fulton residents a week into a jury assembly room, Brasher said that will be among the last things to come back, adding that the court will take cues from other segments of society: Are people getting lunch together? Are children back in school? Are fans attending soccer games?

“Are people voluntarily going to places where they sit with others?” Brasher said. “That should happen before we make people do it.”

Usually, about 20,000 people come to the downtown courthouse every week. Now, Brasher said, that number is reduced to about 1,000 people to do things like apply for marriage licenses and use technology they don’t have at home to file items. When live hearings stopped seven weeks ago, the court quickly acquired 50 licenses for Zoom software.

“We’ve been planning for the end of this since it began,” Brasher said.

Reporters Meris Lutz, Amanda C. Coyne and Adrianne Murchison contributed to this story.

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