As you likely know, on March 14, 2020, Chief Justice Harold D. Melton signed an order declaring a judicial state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Although this judicial order was originally set to expire on April 13, it was extended to May 13 due to concern about COVID-19’s ongoing spread. Now that order will be further extended to June 12. Like or follow the Don Turner Legal Team on Facebook for updates on the coronavirus pandemic as it unfolds.
All hearings that do not entail an immediate liberty or safety concern that requires the court’s full attention are considered non-essential. You can read a detailed explanation of what is considered to be an essential hearing here. Essential hearings are still on the calendar, although you may have the option to conduct them virtually. Contact your court to see if you have this option.
Justice Melton made this announcement on Monday, in the wake of mounting reports of COVID-19 cases in the state of Georgia. As of May 4, 2020, there are 29,045 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia, 5,429 hospitalizations and 1,192 deaths. You can view an up-to-date status report on the number of confirmed coronavirus cases on the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website. Justice Melton intends to sign an order codifying his announcement later this week.
This new order will continue to suspend all non-essential hearings, requiring them to be further rescheduled. This means that if you have a non-essential hearing on the calendar, it will likely be moved further into the year. Make sure to contact the Clerk of Court or check your court’s website for information on your new court date. It also bars courts from summoning and impaneling new trial and grand juries through June 12, 2020 in order to discourage the spread of COVID-19.
In addition, Justice Melton’s new order will urge Georgia courts to develop plans to conduct noncritical court operations remotely, either by using videoconferencing or by adhering to the social distancing guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It also gives judges clearer authority to move certain cases, allows chief judges of judicial circuits to impose more restrictive judicial emergency orders if required, and directs each court to adopt guidelines for in-court proceedings to protect the health of everyone entering the courthouse.
Melton will create a special task force made up of judges from every class of court in Georgia, who will obtain input from civil trial attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, sheriffs, and court clerks. This task force is intended to assist courts in conducting remote proceedings and developing plans to safely resume non-critical in-court proceedings, including jury trials and grand jury trials.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Supreme court is asking for public comment on a proposed plan that would allow non-jury civil trials to be conducted by video conference. This rule would only apply to trials where the right to a jury does not apply or has been waived and would allow the public to watch the trials through video conference or live streaming. You can submit your thoughts on this proposed plan to firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than 4 pm on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Justice Melton’s decision may come as a surprise, in the wake of Governor Kemp allowing select businesses to reopen and Georgia’s statewide shelter-in-place order expiring nearly a week ago. However, according to Justice Melton, Georgia’s courts are a bit different from other public venues. While business owners were given the option on whether or not to reopen their doors (and not everyone has), people are obligated to attend court, which merits extra caution.
Contact our law office today if you have any questions about your case and how this new order will affect it. And if you believe you or a loved one has been exposed to COVID-19, contact the Georgia coronavirus hotline at (844) 442-2681. Georgia may be slowly reopening, but it is still prudent to follow Justice Melton’s example and exercise caution.