As of today, June 7th, 2020, the COVID-19 virus (C19) has killed over two thousand people in Georgia and has disrupted our entire society. The legal system is no exception.
There are alleged victims, defendants, civil litigants, and thousands of others across Georgia who have suffered a temporary and partial loss of access to the courts.
However, with the assistance of people within and outside the judicial system, we are moving forward.
Here is where we are today:
1. To provide some perspective, on March 14, 2020, Chief Justice Harold D. Melton issued his first emergency judicial order to combat the public health emergency. This original order, which was set to expire on April 13, 2020, limited court proceedings to only “essential” functions and tolled filing and timing requirements in civil, criminal, and administrative matters.
“Essential” functions include criminal guilty pleas, bond hearings, domestic abuse restraining orders, juvenile detention hearings, and mental health commitment hearings.
Prior to the expiration of the original order, Melton issued a second order extending the judicial emergency until May 13th, 2020. In this extension order, Melton urged the courts to increase the use of technology to conduct remote judicial proceedings as a preferred alternative to having in-person proceedings. The Supreme Court of Georgia and the Georgia Court of Appeals held remote oral arguments by using the videoconferencing application called “Zoom” last month.
It would be a wise choice for us to download Zoom and become familiar with it.
2. On May, 12th, 2020, Melton issued another order which extended the judicial emergency through June 12th, 2020.. June 12 is also the date the governor’s shelter-in-place recommendation for medically fragile people, including the elderly, expires.
Melton’s new order will continue the suspension of all criminal and civil jury trials through June 12 and also bars courts from summoning and impaneling jurors for trials and grand juries. He said the suspensions are necessary because of the need for recommended social distancing and to protect the health of large groups of people who are typically assembled in response to jury summonses.
Melton also said he was extending the state judicial emergency because, “The courts are different from most private establishments and public places in that we compel people to attend court proceedings, and that requires us to be extra cautious.”
Melton stressed in his announcement that Georgia courts remain open to handle critical and essential court services. His latest order urges courts across the state to develop plans for restoring noncritical court operations that can be conducted remotely by a combination of videoconferencing or adhering to social distancing and other guidelines currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Georgia Department of Public Health.
The courts in west Georgia are complying with the order extending the judicial emergency. Chief Judge John Simpson of the Coweta Judicial Circuit, Chief Judge David Emerson of the Douglas Judicial Circuit, and Chief Judge Meng Lim of the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit have issued local orders that comply with Melton’s order.
Your courts have already developed plans for restoring noncritical hearings. Many courts have already implemented these plans and are conducting these hearings by use of the videoconference.
What does all of this mean?
The judges, lawyers, and the vast, dedicated court personnel are working with laser focus to provide justice.
While it may seem that new and pending cases are at a standstill, they are not. If someone has a criminal or civil, now is a good time to contact a lawyer. When the courts become fully operational, there will be a significant backlog of old cases that will appear on upcoming calendars. Many lawyers will be handling an increased case load and/or will be in high demand.
If someone needs the assistance of a lawyer because of divorce/custody issues, personal injury, business issues, arrests, etc., now would be the time to make an appointment.
Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues and all of the people who are working overtime to ensure that we have a peaceful means to resolve disputes and other legal matters. For further updates, visit www.swindlelaw.com and click on the Tanner Medical Center link.
C-19 is a very dangerous virus. But, it will not stand in the way of justice.