Ga.'s Top Justice Urges Mask Status Quo In Courts, For Now

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The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia has advised state courts that federal guidelines released last week — allowing fully vaccinated individuals to toss their masks aside unless work, business or other guidelines remain in place — don't yet apply to sensitive places like courthouses, where people are obligated to show up.

Chief Justice Harold Melton said state courts should remain cautious before changing coronavirus-related guidelines until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases specific guidelines for places including courthouses.

"The Judicial COVID-19 Task Force is monitoring the CDC guidance, and courts may also ask their local committees of judicial system participants to consider whether new public health guidance should affect the court's specific operating guidelines for in-court proceedings," Justice Melton said in a Wednesday memo.

The CDC advised on May 13 that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks and no longer needed to observe 6 feet of social distancing while indoors and outdoors, marking a huge shift in precautions against the virus. The CDC also said the public should continue observing guidelines in place at places of work or businesses.

The state's high court announced this month that it is set to begin hearing oral arguments in person in June, and that mask-wearing would be required unless attorneys are addressing the justices, and that social distancing would be observed. Justice Melton gave state judges authority to begin resuming jury trials in March.

Christina Smith, deputy court administrator for Georgia's Court of Appeals, told Law360 Pulse on Friday that the appellate court has not yet held in-person hearings this year due to the pandemic, but it plans to follow rules that the Supreme Court sets, including current guidelines that require masks in the courthouse unless a lawyer is addressing the judges.

While the appeals court has scheduled all hearings in June to be conducted virtually, the judges are mulling a hybrid approach — with some in-person and some virtual participation — when the court returns in August, which would be a departure from the court's all-virtual proceedings during the pandemic, Smith said.

"It was quite a radical change," Smith said about going virtual under the pandemic. "We turned on a dime so fast, I'm so proud of us."

Attorneys in Georgia told Law360 Pulse on Friday that while holding in-person hearings at courthouses with masks on might not be ideal, they'll abide by the guidelines until they are updated.

Jonathan Pope, president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, told Law360 Pulse on Friday that he's had a few in-person hearings this year and some association members have even had jury trials.

"No. 1, obviously, we're going to encourage our members to follow the CDC guidelines, to do what the chief justice says, but we all hopefully are working toward the same goal to as soon as possible and if it's to be done safely, we're all looking forward to a time when we don't have to wear masks," Pope said.

Pope, who is also a partner at Hasty Pope Davies Trial Lawyers in Gainesville, Georgia, said trial lawyers want to see witness and jury reactions without masks, especially during jury selection.

"It's probably more important that we're able to move forward with in-person trials even with masks for the short term knowing that in the long term we can maybe do away with masks," Pope said.

The association has partnered with the Georgia Defense Lawyers Association since last summer for a project called Mask Up for Justice to raise money to purchase masks and other personal protective equipment for court personnel in Georgia. The associations have provided over 30,000 masks to court personnel since then, Pope said.

Jeffrey Y. Lewis, an Atlanta-based partner with Arnall Golden Gregory LLP's litigation practice, told Law360 Pulse on Friday that he hasn't yet had any in-person court proceedings, but that he thinks Justice Melton's guidance this week is a good idea.

"As long as you can catch the virus in a confined space like that in a courtroom, I think Justice Melton has it right to proceed slowly," Lewis said. "They're being careful and waiting for CDC and perhaps other public health authorities to announce that it is now safe to go to a courthouse and sit in a courtroom in any of those capacities without fear of getting the virus."

Also based in Atlanta, Seslee S. Smith, a partner at Morris Manning & Martin LLP with over two decades of experience in complex commercial litigation, told Law360 Pulse on Friday that she hasn't yet had any in-person hearings, but she has been talking with opposing counsel about holding in-person depositions or mediations if everyone involved is vaccinated.

Smith said it's more effective to conduct depositions in person instead of virtually because a lot of exhibits need to be shown, among other reasons.

"In my experience, many lawyers are vaccinated," Smith said. "If they're vaccinated, people are comfortable meeting without masks."

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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