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Maggie Lee

More vaccine is arriving, but COVID-19 will linger in courts

The Doors of the state of Georgia's Judicial Building Downtown. Credit: Kelly Jordan The Doors of the state of Georgia's Judicial Building Downtown. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Georgia judges welcome the COVID-19 vaccine as much as anybody else, but the medicine won’t end the unknowable court backlog or the need for space amid pandemic.

Courts slowed work when the pandemic appeared, moving what operations they could to video conference or socially distant in-person proceedings. But there’s enough of a backlog that  “speedy trial” deadlines might be lengthened.

“The folks who have been sitting in jail are first and foremost in our minds,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton at the Georgia Bar, Media and Judiciary Conference on Friday.

Some defendants have been jailed more than a year awaiting a day in court.

And there are other ways COVID-19 will linger in courts.

Courthouses weren’t built for social distancing or ventilation that jurors, staff and litigants will need.

Just ask anyone who has chosen to cram into an elevator at the Fulton County courthouse instead of waiting in line for it again.

Before COVID-19, the Fulton courthouse might have had 15-plus juries going during one week; now it might could handle one at a time, said new Georgia Supreme Court Justice Shawn Ellen LaGrua, who previously spent about a decade in that courthouse.

Judges and staff at the Cobb Judicial Circuit are planning for jury trials as early as the week of April 19 — an endorsement of jury trial resumption is expected in an order from Melton in the coming days.

But every judicial circuit is watching changing COVID-19 infection rates; and trying to think through what they can and should do in-person versus what they might take to online proceedings.

And every circuit is different — not everybody can quickly set up some robust video links either.

Another COVID crisis: pandemic pressures are driving up the domestic violence case workload, said Henry Superior Court’s chief judge.

“We have people who are depressed, sad, and losing income and being forced to live in the same space … and spend more time with people that they already had a difficult relationship with,” said Judge Brian Amero.

The temporary protective order process is the first thing his court ported to video technology. (But he also said that there’s a “surprisingly large” number of heroic family law staff volunteering to come to the courthouse to do work best done in person, like talking to kids.)

And civil cases are stuck in the slowdown too.

“Even once we start being able to address the backlog in particular in criminal, then the civil is going to back up more as we try and address the criminal,” LaGrua said.

Judges and lawyers are collaborating statewide and within their circuits to figure out how best to schedule and do everything.

But it seems like video conferencing is here to stay at least for things like, say, scheduling.

Melton said people will be glad if they don’t have to drive to Savannah from Atlanta for a 15-minute status conference just to tell a judge whether they’re ready for trial.

“They would appreciate not having to spend that time and not having to bill a client for that,” Melton said.

But not everything lends itself to being handled remotely.

We “need to really think through how best to use this technology, these efficiencies and at the same time … not lose anything that is connected to the truth-seeking process,” Amero said.

Documents:

Videos of the entire 2021 Georgia Bar Media and Judiciary Conference.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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