Ga. Chief Justice Looks To Reimpose Grand Jury Deadlines

By Emily Sides
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Law360 (April 8, 2021, 4:15 PM EDT) -- Georgia next month is planning to lift the pandemic-related suspension of grand jury deadlines in state courts, ensuring that detained adult defendants would have their cases heard by a grand jury within about three months, the state's chief justice announced Thursday.

Chief Justice Harold D. Melton plans to reinstate statutory deadlines for grand jury proceedings for detained criminal defendants starting May 14, according to an announcement from the state Supreme Court. Apart from adult defendants, the move would mean that juvenile defendants would have their cases heard by a grand jury within about six months.

In his order, Justice Melton said he is set to lift the suspension of grand jury deadlines because all counties have the ability to hold at least one in-person grand jury hearing. Reinstating the deadlines also aims to address the number of unindicted criminal defendants and safeguard their rights to have their cases progress, according to the court's announcement.

"Courts around our state have been working hard to resolve cases with the speed and efficiency we did before the pandemic," Justice Melton said in the statement. "Reinstating these deadlines will be another step toward getting us back to more robust court operations."

Justice Melton made his announcement about grand jury proceedings as he stretched his judicial emergency order to continue until May 8.

The order, which he first handed down in March 2020 and has since renewed monthly, requires state courts to conduct proceedings virtually as much as possible and to enforce public health measures to protect against the virus for any in-person matters.

Most courts have already begun grand jury proceedings after Justice Melton gave permission in September for the chief judge in each Superior Court to start such proceedings if the courts could do so with public health measures against the virus in place, according to his order.

However, some counties that resumed grand jury proceedings after the September order paused them in the winter due to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, according to the announcement.

Once the deadlines are reimposed, criminal defendants in Georgia who are refused bail must have a grand jury hearing within 90 days of their arrest, according to the announcement. Juveniles with cases in front of a Superior Court are owed a grand jury hearing within 180 days of their detention.

On March 9, Justice Melton allowed jury trials to resume in state courts as deemed possible by county conditions and if public health measures were set up. Many counties have resumed jury trials since then, according to the announcement.

In his State of the Judiciary Address on March 16, Justice Melton asked state lawmakers to support S.B. 163, which proposes to grant the judicial branch the power to postpone speedy trial requirements once a judicial emergency order has ended.

So far, the bill has been approved by the state's Senate and House of Representatives and is headed to Gov. Brian Kemp for consideration to be signed into law.

Kemp has 40 days from March 31 to sign the law, according to a spokesperson for the state Senate.

Justice Melton, who is stepping down in early July, said the proposed legislation will allow the judicial branch to postpone deadlines if defendants ask for a speedy trial when it can't practically meet those deadlines after a judicial emergency, saying the system could be overwhelmed amid virus restrictions.

Last month, Justice Melton said the state requires his judicial emergency order to end shortly after whenever Kemp ends his statewide public health emergency order. He added then that normally defendants can demand a speedy trial, which requires the court to comply within a few terms or the court must automatically acquit and release the defendant.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported that the state has had 859,388 coronavirus cases as of Thursday. The state also has reported 16,886 deaths, 59,481 hospitalizations and 9,733 ICU admissions since the start of the pandemic.

--Additional reporting by Rosie Manins and Jack Karp. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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