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Law360 (February 1, 2021, 7:06 PM EST) -- Georgia plans to resume jury trials in March pending the state's continuous drop in COVID-19 rates paired with its vaccination plans remaining on track, the head of the Georgia Judicial Council said Monday.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton helmed a remote emergency meeting of the council, saying his plan to get cases moving forward depends on avoiding setbacks. He said Georgia's infection rate is on the decline, and if that trend continues alongside "greater certainty" regarding the state's vaccination process, jury trials could be safe under strict pandemic measures come March.
"We hope, we hope, we hope to be able in the March [judicial emergency] order to open up jury trials again," Justice Melton said. "If things continue to show themselves as favorable, barring any setbacks, our hope is to open up jury trials in our March order."
Justice Melton suspended jury trials across the state in December, citing increased COVID-19 infection and death rates in the Peach State since allowing courts to resume jury trials in October. His initial month-long judicial emergency order in response to the coronavirus pandemic was implemented in March 2020 and has since been extended on a monthly basis with necessary amendments.
Justice Melton said Monday that the existing order, due to expire on Feb. 7, will be replaced with an order that's 95% identical. If conditions allow, it will indicate the desire to resume jury trials in March under the following order, he said.
His optimism Monday about staging trials in order to work through Georgia's backlog of cases resulting from the pandemic was in contrast to a Wednesday order by a Georgia federal judge suspending jury trials in his district until April.
Northern District of Georgia Chief Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. cited in his Jan. 27 order the White House's latest report on the coronavirus pandemic, saying Georgia had the fourth-highest rate in the country of COVID-19 hospital admissions per hospital beds and the eighth-highest COVID-19 test positivity rate.
Judge Thrash extended to April 4 an existing jury trial ban for the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta, that was set to expire on Feb. 28. He warned it might not be safe to open up courtrooms even then.
But Justice Melton said Monday that "our numbers are looking good right now" and unless that changed, the jury trial suspension was likely to be lifted for state courts.
"Now would be the time to make the move to be ready to act in that regard," he told judges of the council.
The Georgia Department of Public Health reported Monday that in the preceding 24 hours almost 50 people in the state had died from COVID-19 and just over 2,500 tested positive. The state has so far recorded more than 752,000 positive cases and 12,600 related deaths since the onset of the pandemic.
Under Georgia's COVID-19 vaccination plan, court staff are among the second wave of people to get access to shots, Justice Melton said. The state is still restricting vaccinations to those in the first wave, which includes health workers, first responders and those aged 65 and over.
Justice Melton said he didn't know when "Stage 1B" allowing court staff to be vaccinated would begin, but that the council's staff are implementing associated recommendations and watching state health officials.
"State leadership is focusing on the lessons learned in Stage 1A, they're still engaged in that, and we're waiting to see when the next stage may be implemented," he said. "We're going to let that develop a little bit further before we start issuing guidance."
Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias also told the council Monday about several pandemic-related proposed law changes that received unanimous support from members. He said one such change would allow district attorneys to use "accusations rather than indictments" as formal charging instruments for non-violent crimes until June 2022, so cases aren't further stalled because of restricted grand jury activity.
"There was initially a fair amount of opposition from the criminal defense bar, but this is close to a consensus proposal right now," he said.
Other proposed law changes supported by the council Monday would allow for more buildings to be used as alternative court locations if needed during a pandemic, and to permit judges to consider bench trials in criminal cases despite a prosecutor's objection.
"Hopefully that will be enough to help us work our way out of the backlog," Justice Nahmias said.
--Additional reporting by Clark Mindock and Sara Calvatore. Editing by Ellen Johnson.
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