On December 23, 2020 Chief Justice Harold D. Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia amended an order signed on Wednesday, December 9 that extends until January 8, 2021 the Statewide Judicial Emergency the Chief Justice declared on March 14, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the ninth time he has extended the emergency for a 30-day period, as state law allows.
The Ninth extension order was modified to amend Section I (B), related to jury trials, as follows:
In response to the recent rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases, and to protect the health and safety of the public and court personnel while continuing to allow access to essential judicial functions, all jury trials not already in progress, including in-person proceedings to select jurors, are prohibited; this suspension of in-person jury trial proceedings is anticipated to continue until at least February. Jury trials in progress as of the date of this order may continue to conclusion at the discretion of the assigned judge. This order also does not preclude the issuance of juror summonses.
All courts are again urged to use technology when practicable and lawful to conduct remote judicial proceedings as a safer alternative to in-person proceedings. Where remote proceedings are not practicable or lawful, courts are reminded that in-person proceedings must be conducted in full compliance with public health guidance and the other requirements set forth in the Ninth extension order and in light of local conditions.
To get ready for the resumption of jury trials, an earlier order directed each Chief Judge of a superior court to convene a local committee in each county of the judicial circuit to develop a detailed plan with specific guidelines for the safe resumption of jury trials. That plan must be in place before jury trials may resume.
A statewide Judicial COVID-19 Task Force – made up of judges and lawyers appointed in May by Chief Justice Melton – has been working on developing guidelines for the safe reopening of in-person proceedings. The “Guidance for Resuming Jury Trials,” which is included in the Appendix of the new order, provides a set of detailed guidelines that address many topics, including the use of masks; the reconfiguring of courtrooms and chairs, installation of plexiglass barriers, and use of markers to ensure social distancing; the regular replacement of air filters; and plans for guaranteeing public access to court proceedings, including setting up areas where the public can watch remotely from within the courthouse.
The order continues to point out that due to the time required to summon potential jurors for service, grand jury hearings and jury trials will not actually start for some times after the process for resuming them began in the fall. Also, due to substantial backlogs of unindicted and untried cases, as well as public health precautions, proceedings will not occur at the speed they occurred before the pandemic.