Ga. Probate Judges Want Relief After Year Of COVID Havoc

Georgia probate court judges and clerks, hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic of any group in the state's legal community, feel mounting frustration over the lack of protections they've gotten from the state in the last year.

More than 100 Georgia probate judges and clerks have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began a year ago, and three judges and one clerk have died as a result of contracting the virus, the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia says. There is a probate court in each of Georgia's 159 counties, each with one judge, and many with just one or two clerks.

Probate court staff are in close personal contact with a large number of different people on a daily basis as they perform essential duties like appointing guardians, overseeing wills, and issuing marriage and weapons carry licenses, the council's executive director, Kevin D. Holder, says. Georgia law requires most probate court services to occur in person, though proposals to allow remote or online services are pending before the state legislature.

But court personnel haven't been deemed essential workers by the state, and their jobs don't qualify them to be vaccinated under Georgia restrictions.

"You have this class of court on the front lines every day, and the work that we do has been deemed essential and the one thing that has not are the people who do the work," Holder said. "It's hard to try to fathom that."

Probate courts can't voluntarily shut down, their staff can't work from home, and there aren't enough trained people to plug gaps when employees are quarantining, Cobb County Probate Court Chief Judge Kelli L. Wolk, president of the council of probate court judges, said.

In some cases, probate court staff are dealing with people who have come directly from dropping a sick loved one at a hospital to get guardian or conservator papers. The more deaths, mental health issues and serious medical decisions that people have to deal with, the more work there is for probate staff, she said.

"We are constantly trying to balance maximum productivity with maximum safety, short of shutting down, and we're all managing in our own ways given our own unique courthouse configurations," Judge Wolk said.

Holder said that from the end of the summer through the end of February, about 40 counties were forced to intermittently close their probate courts because a judge had tested positive for COVID-19 and the staff had been exposed or because staff tested positive and the judge was exposed, triggering a two-week closure. The probate court in Seminole County has had to close "two or three times already for that very issue," he said.

Georgia currently makes the vaccine available only to those 65 and over, health care staff, frontline responders, assisted living facility employees, most teachers and some limited categories of people with disabilities and illnesses and their caregivers.

Court personnel were at one point included in the "1B" phase of Gov. Brian Kemp's initial COVID-19 vaccination plan, but Kemp changed the plan before "1B" eligibility began, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold D. Melton said at a March 1 meeting of the Georgia Judicial Council.

At that meeting, Justice Melton asked judges for help lobbying the governor to let court staff get the vaccine. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment from Law360.

Harris County Probate Court Judge Thomas Lakes, who tested positive for the virus in April, said the role requires some of the highest exposure to it of any working situation, but that probate courts and their staff are the least equipped to prevent its spread. He said probate courts are at the mercy of what counties can afford, whereas hospitals and health clinics are "built from the ground up" to handle such crises.

"We do the best we can with what we have," Judge Lakes said. "We're so varied across our counties, some are large and have more resources than others."

Judge Wolk said county budgets are down due to the pandemic, limiting resources for probate courts, which are typically small and unable to accommodate more than a few people if they're socially distancing. "Being treated as essential workers would be really helpful, it would make a significant difference in some of the safety concerns of our colleagues and coworkers," she said.

Judge Wolk told Law360 that probate court staff are not only anxious about getting COVID-19, they are also fielding increasing anger from members of the public impatient for their licenses and other documents that the courts are struggling to process as quickly as usual. The many COVID-19-induced court closures during the pandemic, coupled with a simultaneous huge increase in applications for weapons carry licenses and other services, is making things hard, she said.

Based on numbers so far this year, Cobb County's probate court is on track to receive around 24,000 weapons carry license applications in 2021, she said. That is thousands more than it has ever processed annually.

"Our office is trying to be kind, is trying to be accommodating, is trying to be efficient, while protecting themselves and protecting customers or constituents and limiting the amount of risk to everyone involved in the process," Judge Wolk said. "We have folks who are standing over the back of someone and holding their hand to roll their fingerprints, which puts, obviously, both of those parties at a significant exposure risk."

Upson County Probate Court Judge Danielle McRae has tested positive for the virus and so did her clerk at a different time, forcing a court closure. She said even those who wear a face mask into the court usually have to take it off for an identification photograph and that "exposure is always there." Only two people at a time can fit in Judge McRae's lobby while social distancing.

Gilmer County Probate Court Judge Scott Chastain also tested positive for COVID-19 and spent almost a month quarantining at home during the summer. He said his traffic court calendar in particular is backlogged due to months of stalled operations.

"If a [probate] judge is out for a month or, God forbid, gets really sick and ends up in a hospital somewhere, that county could be in real bad shape because there's not a sitting judge to conduct the business," Judge Chastain said. "Maybe we're not in the same group as a doctor or nurse or a first responder, but I think we're very close to the same group with as many people as we come in contact with."

Judge Wolk said her biggest ask of the public is to approach probate court staff with grace and understanding and to help prevent the virus' spread when they access the courts.

"I love being a probate judge and the idea that we are somehow not wanting to serve our purpose breaks my heart," she said. "I don't want anyone who's interacting with my court to feel like we're doing anything to try and put off our responsibility. And I don't want anyone who works with me to feel in any way that we are lessening their protection."

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

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