Northern District Of Ga. Suspends Jury Trials Until April

By Rosie Manins
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Law360 (January 28, 2021, 3:39 PM EST) -- Georgia's "extremely high" COVID-19 infection rate means there won't be any jury trials in the federal district that includes Atlanta until at least April 4, the district's chief judge said in an order Wednesday.

Northern District of Georgia Chief Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. cited the latest White House report on the coronavirus pandemic in his order, saying the Peach State has the fourth-highest rate in the country of COVID-19 hospital admissions per hospital beds. And Georgia has the eighth-highest COVID-19 test positivity rate, he said.

Judge Thrash extended the district's existing jury trial ban, set to expire Feb. 28, to April 4. But it might not be safe to open up courtrooms even then, he said.

"While the introduction of vaccines represents a significant progress in the fight against COVID-19, a significant decline in the current COVID-19 infection rate within the district and an increase in the number of people vaccinated against the disease is still needed before this court can safely resume jury trials," Judge Thrash said in his order.

Three of the counties within the Northern District — Gwinnett, Fulton and Cobb — together account for a quarter of all new COVID-19 cases in Georgia, he said. Those counties make up much of metropolitan Atlanta.

In December, the last time the court amended its ongoing emergency order, "the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in Georgia was more than 4,500 cases per day," Judge Thrash said. "Despite a recent decline, Georgia's daily average for new COVID-19 cases for the past seven days is now reported at 7,354 cases per day."

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported Thursday that the state had charted almost 732,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, more than 12,000 associated deaths and almost 50,000 related hospitalizations, of which more than 8,000 involved admission to intensive care units.

"These numbers far exceed those that existed when the court entered its original order in March and are among the highest since the pandemic was declared," Judge Thrash said of Georgia's current infection and hospitalization rates. "In its latest report this month, the White House Coronavirus Task Force reports that more than 95% of Georgia's 159 counties have high levels of community transmission and characterizes conditions in Georgia as consistent with 'a full pandemic resurgence.'"

Judge Thrash announced in September that the district would hold off on jury trials until the new year, delaying several high-profile cases due to be heard. His order does not disrupt grand jury proceedings.

The judge said vaccination rollout has been slower than expected in Georgia. The state has received about 1.2 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, enough for about 11% of the population, he said.

Vaccinations are still being restricted in Georgia to emergency and health care professionals and people age 65 and older. This week, the state's public health department suspended a rural Georgia medical center's supply of the vaccine for six months because it prioritized doses for local teachers under mounting community pressure.

"Although the daily COVID-19 infection rates and test positivity rates appear to be declining both nationally and in Georgia from their post-holiday highs, the numbers for each remain extremely high and continue to far exceed the high rates of infection experienced during the past summer," Judge Thrash said.

Georgia's state courts are also subject to a jury trial suspension, imposed just before Christmas. It came less than three months after Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton allowed jury trials to resume in early October, having originally suspended them in March.

Justice Melton's current statewide judicial emergency order, in its tenth amended form, is due to expire on Feb. 7. The Judicial Council of Georgia, chaired by Justice Melton, is due to meet remotely Feb. 1 to discuss the next order.

--Additional reporting by Cara Salvatore and Clark Mindock. Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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