For the first time since last spring, the Georgia Supreme Court’s nine justices, attorneys, and other courthouse regulars returned Wednesday morning for in-person hearings in a building barely used before the pandemic shifted proceedings online.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Since the shutdown of the courtroom, the Supreme Court hosted virtual hearings that allowed the state’s highest court to not fall behind in its calendar. Now, it’s time to adjust to in-person proceedings while following safeguards put in place to contain the coronavirus.

Wednesday’s docket included two cases and will be the first time that new justices Shawn Ellen LaGrua and Carla Wong McMillian will join the rest of their colleagues inside the courtroom at the Nathan J. Deal Judicial Center. And the return comes just a few weeks before Chief Justice Harold Melton steps down after guiding the state’s judicial system throughout the public health crisis.

Chief Justice Harold Melton

“We know how to do the virtual,” Melton said in a recent interview. “We know how to do it live because we did that before. So we just go back to what we have been doing with a couple of minor modifications that we’re still working out.

“Things are still changing pretty fast in terms of the importance of wearing masks, but we’re ready for oral arguments live; that’s easy to do,” Melton said.

But while the state Supreme Court successfully maneuvered through its calendar, many lower courts are just now starting to tackle a bottleneck of criminal and civil cases.

For about a year, jury trials in Georgia were put on hold under a statewide judicial emergency order by Melton until he lifted their suspension in March.

And this week, Melton announced that he expects to allow his emergency order expire June 30 in anticipation of Gov. Brian Kemp ending Georgia’s statewide public health emergency. 

Melton said he is comfortable with courts reopening now that Georgia has seen a sharp decline in COVID-19 infection rates and with the widespread availability of vaccines. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia’s vaccination rate is hovering at about 52% for adults who have received at least one dose, still short of the national average of 63% for adults.

The chief judges in each judicial district now have control over how to operate their courts. The majority of circuit courts have resumed jury trials, said Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

One significant change that attorneys and judges say helped clear the backlog is a new state law that temporarily suspends the state’s speedy trial requirement that allows more leeway to process cases.

It’s going to take two or three years in many districts to get through the cases. By the end of 2020, more than 60,000 people had cases pending across the majority of Georgia’s judicial circuits. 

“So far, everything’s running smoothly,” Skandalakis said. “We really haven’t seen defense counsel filing a lot of motions for a speedy trial, obviously because defense counsel and the public defenders are also overwhelmed with the backlog of cases.

“But we’ll be able to deal with it,” Skandalakis added. “I don’t see it as big of a deal as it could be because the legislators have given us the tools.”

But whittling down the backlog of cases can also come at a high cost. Fulton County is looking into whether the county could dedicate $60 million in federal COVID-19 assistance to tackle more than 11,000 cases waiting in the system.

Safety protocols for proceedings

There will be some noticeable safety procedures followed inside downtown Atlanta’s Judicial Center that houses the Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals. Named for former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, the courthouse was dedicated in February 2020 just before the state shut down to fight COVID-19. 

They’re following the reopening guidelines created by the state Judicial Council, which offers recommendations to keep staff, attorneys, jurors, and visitors safe while inside courthouses.  

Among the recommendations for local and state courts are to keep jurors socially distanced inside the courtroom and during jury selection and deliberations and require them to wear masks.

Those space limitations in the Supreme Court mean just 34 people can be in the courtroom at once instead of the previous maximum of 154.

For now, while the justices have been vaccinated, they will continue to wear masks along with jurors. Attorneys will be able to remove their face coverings while standing at the podium during arguments.

Remote proceedings won’t quite be a thing of the past at the Supreme Court, which will decide on a case-by-case basis whether it makes more sense to go virtual.

“We’re still playing with to what extent we want to have a virtual option,” Melton said. “We’re sensitive to the idea that it’s very efficient for out-of-town lawyers, especially. And that efficiency means real affordability and accessibility for litigants.”

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