Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton announced Monday he is extending the Statewide Judicial Emergency another month through June 12 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s the second time Melton has extended the order by a month. It had previously been set to expire May 13.
Under the extension order, all criminal and civil jury trials will continue to be suspended, and courts will be barred from summoning and impaneling new trial and grand juries, according to a news release. The suspensions are necessary due to the social distancing and other safety measures recommended by the CDC, the Georgia Department of Public Health and local county health departments “to protect the health of the large groups of people who are generally assembled for jury proceedings,” officials said.
“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 said.
Since the emergency order initially took effect March 14, the state’s courts have been required to remain open to handle critical and essential court services. Under the new extension order, courts will be urged to develop plans for building back non-critical operations that can be conducted remotely by videoconferencing or by maintaining adherence to public health guidelines, according to the release. The order will urge courts to increase the use of technology to conduct remote judicial proceedings where legally permitted as a preferred alternative to in-person proceedings in order to limit the backlog once the emergency declaration is terminated, the release said.
The extension order will make clear that the chief judges of judicial circuits may impose more restrictive judicial emergency orders if required by local conditions. And judges will have clearer authority to move certain cases.
Melton will create a special task force to assist courts in conducting remote proceedings and to develop plans for the safe resumption of more extensive in-court proceedings, including jury trials and grand jury proceedings. The task force will include judges representing every class of court, who will obtain input from prosecutors and public defenders, civil trial attorneys, court clerks and sheriffs, according to the release.
The order also will direct each court to develop guidelines for in-court proceedings to protect the health of all those who enter the courthouse. Once completed, the guidelines should be prominently posted at courthouse entrances and on court and government websites, the release said.