ATLANTA, Ga – Chief Justice Harold D. Melton issued an order today that extends the statewide judicial emergency until May 13, 2020. The Chief Justice first declared a judicial emergency on March 14 which was due to expire April 13.
While under a statewide judicial emergency, courts are ordered to remain open to deal with matters that are critical or “essential” to protect the “health, safety, and liberty of individuals.” As an example, essential court functions include such things as the issuance of search and arrest warrants and the granting of domestic abuse restraining orders. However, criminal trials and jury duty have been suspended statewide, and courts are urged to use teleconferencing and videoconferencing where feasible when conducting hearings or other court matters to avoid litigants, judges, and other persons from having to convene in the courthouse and risk exposure to COVID-19.
With today’s extension of the emergency, the order urges courts to avoid backlogs in nonessential matters where they can do so safely. “With regard to matters not deemed essential functions under the Statewide Judicial Emergency Order, courts and litigants are encouraged to proceed to the extent feasible and consistent with public health guidance, for example through the use of teleconferences and videoconferences, to reduce backlogs when the judicial emergency ends,” the order says.
“The threat of this virus is difficult for everyone,” Chief Justice Melton said. “Court personnel are no exception. We have to ensure that they can safely fulfill their mission.”
Chief Justice Melton said that mandating that only essential matters be addressed by the courts is a step toward protecting the safety of court personnel and the public. But Chief Justice Melton noted that with today’s order extending the judicial emergency, “I also want to encourage courts and counsel in nonessential matters to move those matters forward as much as possible and practicable to maintain the flow. We should do what we can safely do during this time to keep the courts’ backlog from growing too large.”
The order urges attorneys to remember their “obligations of professionalism.” Guidance on those obligations can be found in the Lawyer’s Creed and Aspirational Statement on Professionalism. (https://www.gabar.org/aboutthebar/lawrelatedorganizations/cjcp/lawyers-creed.cfm) In particular, attorneys are urged during this emergency to accommodate opposing counsel in either moving cases along or agreeing to continuances as appropriate.
The order states that the Chief Justice will give notice of the expected termination of the order “at least one week in advance to allow courts to plan the transition to fuller operations.”
See entire declaration here: CJ Melton_Extension_Order_signed_entered
The March 14 order states that courts “should remain open to address essential functions, and in particular courts should give priority to matters defined as those necessary to protect health, safety, and liberty of individuals.” The order lists the matters courts should prioritize, which including domestic abuse restraining orders, juvenile court delinquency detention hearings and emergency removal matters, mental health commitment hearings, and cases “where an immediate liberty or safety concern is present requiring the attention of the court as soon as the court is available.”
“Following Governor Kemp’s declaration today of a Public Health State of Emergency, I am directing the judicial branch of government to suspend all but essential court functions,” Chief Justice Melton said. “These critical matters will remain a priority in our courts.”
Criminal trials in which a jury already has been empaneled “shall continue to conclusion, unless good cause exists to suspend the trial or declare a mistrial,” the order states.
During the period of the order, which will terminate April 13 unless extended, the order suspends and grants relief from a number of judicial deadlines, such as the “time within which to issue a warrant” and the “time within which to hold a commitment hearing.”
The order states that, “To the extent court proceedings are held, they should be done in a manner to limit the risk of exposure, where possible, such as videoconferencing.”