Georgia To Resume Jury Trials In State Courts

Georgia's top judge announced during a Monday meeting of state jurists that he will lift the current suspension of jury trials in state courts on March 9, under his latest judicial emergency order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton urged his fellow judges to "dust off" their pandemic-era jury trial plans and make them publicly available so those called to jury duty can be confident their health will be protected. While chairing the remote meeting of the Georgia Judicial Council, he said all eyes will be on how state courts handle the resumption of jury trials.

Justice Melton suspended jury trials in December, citing increased COVID-19 infection and death rates in the Peach State since he had first allowed courts to resume jury trials in October. He indicated at the last council meeting in early February that he'd lift the suspension if the state's drop in COVID-19 rates, paired with its vaccination plans, remained on track.

He urged judges on Monday to continue using video technology whenever possible and to ensure state guidelines for in-person jury trials during the pandemic are closely followed.

"We will be under scrutiny, you will be under scrutiny, and the phone will ring if it doesn't look right," Justice Melton said. "So please be mindful of that. Our objective here is to instill confidence in everybody that's coming in [the courts] that they will be safe."

He said the state's need for holding jury trials is greater than it ever has been, given the backlog of cases stalled by the pandemic.

Justice Melton said the seven-day average in Georgia of new coronavirus cases per day had dropped from its peak of about 7,200 to about 2,000. The lowest that rate had been in Georgia throughout the pandemic was about 1,200 new cases a day, he said.

"Ideally that curve will flatten out at a lower level," he said.

Justice Melton, who recently announced he will leave the court in July, said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp changed COVID-19 vaccination requirements in the past week and that he did not know when court personnel would become eligible to receive their shots. He asked fellow judges to help him lobby the governor to prioritize vaccinations for court staff and urged them to promote vaccination among eligible friends and family.

Cobb County Probate Judge Kelli M. Wolk, president of the probate court council in Georgia, offered to rally for court staff vaccinations, announcing that at least 33 probate judges and 55 probate court clerks in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

"We're closing in on 100 positives amongst our ranks and it's very troubling," Judge Wolk said. "And I don't know what to do about it other than complain and that doesn't seem right. It's a problem."

Anyone over the age of 65 can get vaccinated for free in Georgia, as well as most first responders, health care workers, assisted living facility employees and teachers.

Judge Wolk broke news to the council in October that a third Georgia probate judge, 62-year-old Judge Karen Batten, had died from a coronavirus infection. And on Thanksgiving, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice George H. Carley, a state jurist for more than three decades, died as a result of COVID-19. He was 82.

Jury trials in the federal district that includes Atlanta are suspended until at least April 4, the district's chief judge ordered at the end of January.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported on Monday the state had seen more than 800,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and just over 15,000 related deaths since the onset of the pandemic.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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