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Georgia’s chief justice declares ‘statewide judicial emergency’

Chief Justice Harold Melton, who wrote the unanimous opinion. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Chief Justice Harold Melton, who wrote the unanimous opinion. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Georgia’s chief justice has declared a statewide judicial emergency, ordering courts and clerk’s offices  to “suspend all but essential court functions” amid growing concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

Chief Supreme Court Justice Harold D. Melton made the extraordinary decision late Saturday afternoon, a few hours after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency. At the time, 66 cases of the novel coronavirus had been confirmed in the state.

Unless amended, the order affecting all Georgia courts and clerk’s offices will be in place for 30 days.

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The order says that courts should continue to address issues “necessary to protect health, safety and liberty of individuals” but otherwise limit operations. It said issues like domestic abuse restraining orders; juvenile detention hearings; mental health commitment hearings; and bond reviews should be prioritized.

Criminal trials already underway should continue until completed, it said.

“To the extent court proceedings are held, they should be done in a manner to limit the risk of exposure, where possible, such as videoconferencing,” the order said.

Several local court systems — including those in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties — had already announced pauses to trials and other proceedings on Friday.

Courtroom closings have also already taken place in states including Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky and Rhode Island.

Under the chief justice’s order, normal deadlines for things like statutes of limitation and speedy trial demands will also be suspended.