Georgia’s judicial system under pressure responding to coronavirus crisis

Chief Justice Harold Melton said he wanted to get Georgia judges on the same page.

ATLANTA — The chief justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court says he declared a statewide judicial emergency this past weekend partly because some courts had closed down too much and some not enough.

The order issued Saturday gives guidance for jury trials already started and some other specifics, but Chief Justice Harold Melton told Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne that he wanted to get Georgia judges on the same page to protect life and liberty and protect people from the coronavirus.

“We are urging all judges not to bring in groups of people into court unless it deals with critical matters,” Melton said. “Critical matters are defined as those matters that deal with life and liberty. It’s unprecedented in the history of our state.”

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Melton said he wanted to make sure everyone knew what they should and should not do during the coronavirus crisis.

“Had situations come to your attention where some courts were not following prudent practices in the coronavirus crisis?” Winne asked Melton.

“Yes. we had examples of not following best practices on both sides. We had some courts that were closing down altogether and we had some courts that were engaging in more procedures than they needed to,” Melton said.

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“Courts need to stay open for issuing arrest warrants, search warrants. If somebody is in need of a temporary restraining order to keep somebody from harassing them physically, courts need to be open to do that business.”

For example, Dougherty County Superior Court Clerk Evonne Mull said a prospective juror in a recent murder case in Albany has now tested positive for coronavirus, and other prospective jurors have been sent a letter informing them of the positive test and that that person had been in the main jury room with 109 others

Mull said others who were in the courtroom have been notified as well.

Melton said some criminal matters can't stop, but most hearings in civil matters, such as lawsuits, should be delayed.

“Most civil matters should stop. That doesn’t mean that a judge can’t work in his or her chambers and issue orders and do work and keep the backlog from piling up, but that doesn’t involve people coming into the courthouse,” Melton said.

Melton said planning for a pandemic's potential impact on the courts began in 2009, and public health experts warned then that it was not a question of if, but when something like coronavirus would happen.

As judges navigate the rules of the judicial emergency, prosecutors are learning ways to work around the guidance of social distancing while meeting with inmates over upcoming court cases.

Channel 2’s Tom Jones has learned that prosecutors are now doing video conferencing to keep prosecutors from having to go to jails.

"We set up a video process so that the prosecutors and some of the other court officials can remain here without going out to the Fulton County Jail,” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.

Howard said the coronavirus crisis has greatly disrupted the courts.

There are no juries or grand jurors, so that means no trials.

People are still getting arrested. That's led to overcrowding at the jail.

“So, what we're trying to do is see if we can allow that person to make a signature bond,” Howard said.

Another option Howard suggested is releasing individuals with ankle monitors, to help reduce overcrowding and keep inmates safe from the virus.

Howard insists no violent offenders will be released.