Please note: This is a text-only version. See the Second Order Extending Declaration of Statewide Judicial Emergency (PDF) for a signed copy.
On March 14, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Honorable Harold D. Melton, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, issued an Order Declaring Statewide Judicial Emergency pursuant to OCGA § 38-3-61. Due to the continuing statewide emergency, on April 6, 2020, the Order was extended until May 13, 2020. While the work of the courts in Georgia has gone forward on essential and critical matters, and most courts have continued some non-essential court operations, in particular by using technology to conduct proceedings remotely, most court facilities are not prepared to comply with social distancing and other public health requirements to safeguard the health of litigants, lawyers, judges, court personnel, and the public during extensive in-court proceedings or proceedings involving a large number of people. After consulting with the Judicial Council of Georgia and other judicial partners, and recognizing that most in-court proceedings compel the attendance of various individuals rather than allowing them to decide how best to protect their own health, it is hereby determined that the statewide judicial emergency Order should be extended, with some clarifications and modifications as well as directions regarding efforts to resume court operations in a manner that protects public health.
Accordingly, the Order Declaring Statewide Judicial Emergency, which would have expired on Wednesday, May 13, 2020, at 11:59 p.m., is further extended until Friday, June 12, 2020, at 11:59 p.m. All Georgia courts shall continue to operate under the restrictions set forth in that Order as extended, with the following clarifications, modifications, and directions. Where this order refers to "public health guidance," courts should consider the most specific current guidance provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), and their local health departments.
1. Guidance on Application of the Order
Included in the Appendix to this Order are several guidance documents that clarify the application of the Order in particular contexts: tolling of filing deadlines; tolling of statutes of limitations; deadlines and time limits defined by reference to terms of court; and the continued authority of grand juries impaneled prior to the issuance of the Order. Additional guidance documents may be posted on the AOC’s website at https://georgiacourts.gov/judicial-council/aoc/. It should be noted, however, that as discussed in Section 6 below, judges are being granted authority on a case-specific basis to reimpose certain deadlines that would otherwise be tolled by the Order or establish new deadlines or schedules.
2. Prohibition on Jury Trial Proceedings and Most Grand Jury Proceedings
Current public health guidance recommends social distancing and other measures that make it impracticable for courts to protect the health of the large groups of people who are normally assembled for jury proceedings, including jury selection. Accordingly, until further order, all courts are prohibited from summoning new trial jurors and grand jurors and from conducting criminal or civil jury trials.
Grand juries that are already impaneled or are recalled from a previous term of court may meet to attend to time-sensitive essential matters, but these grand juries should not be assembled except when necessary and only under circumstances in which social distancing and other public health guidance can be followed.
As discussed below, efforts are being pursued to allow the safe resumption of jury trials. The clerks and court administrators of trial courts that conduct jury trials and convene grand juries will be provided sufficient notice of the resumption of jury proceedings to allow the complicated process of summoning potential jurors to be completed. Information about this issue will be provided to trial court clerks and court administrators.
3. Proceedings Conducted Remotely Using Technology
All courts should continue to use and increase the use of technology to conduct remote judicial proceedings as a preferred alternative to in person proceedings, both to ensure that essential court functions are continued and to conduct non-essential proceedings to limit the backlog of such matters when the judicial emergency is terminated. Courts should understand and utilize the authority provided by the emergency amendments made to court rules on videoconferences and teleconferences.
Courts may compel the participation of litigants, lawyers, witnesses, and other essential personnel in remote judicial proceedings, including civil non-jury trials and other non-jury adjudicative proceedings, where allowed by court rules (including emergency amendments thereto). Such proceedings, however, must be consistent with public health guidance, must not impose undue burdens on participants, and must not be prohibited by the requirements of the United States or Georgia constitutions or applicable statutes or court rules.
In civil, criminal, and juvenile proceedings, parties may expressly consent in the record to remote proceedings not otherwise authorized and affirmatively waive otherwise applicable legal requirements. Courts must ensure the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings and, unless affirmatively waived in the record, a criminal defendant’s rights to confrontation and open courtrooms.
4. In-Court Proceedings; Development of Guidelines
Except for jury and grand jury proceedings as discussed in Section 2 above, courts have discretion to conduct essential and non-essential in person judicial proceedings, but only in compliance with public health guidance and with the requirements of the United States and Georgia constitutions and applicable statutes and court rules, including the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings and a criminal defendant’s rights to confrontation and open courtrooms.
Before conducting extensive in-person proceedings, particularly in non-essential matters, each court should develop written guidelines as to how in-court proceedings generally and particular types of proceedings will be conducted to protect the health of litigants, lawyers, judges, court personnel, and the public. Guidelines should specify who should be admitted to the courthouse and courtroom and how public health guidance will be followed regarding such matters as health screening of court personnel and visitors, social distancing (including by capping the occupancy of courthouses, interior areas, and courtrooms based on their size), availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by court personnel and visitors, and sanitization practices. Guidelines should provide for accommodations for high-risk individuals. Courts should consider the use of staggered, smaller proceedings to conduct proceedings involving many cases or participants, such as calendar calls and arraignments. Guidelines should be prominently posted at courthouse entrances and on court and government websites to provide advance notice to litigants, lawyers, and the public.
Support for the development of guidelines will be provided by the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force discussed in Section 7 below, as well as by the councils for each class of court. Courts of different classes that share courthouse facilities or operate in the same county should seek to coordinate their guidelines.
5. Discretion of Chief Judges to Declare More Restrictive Local Judicial Emergencies
Nothing in the Order Declaring Statewide Judicial Emergency as extended and modified limits the authority of the Chief Judge of a superior court judicial circuit under OCGA §§ 38-3-61 and 38-3-62 to add to the restrictions imposed by the statewide judicial emergency, if such additional restrictions are constitutional, necessitated by local conditions, and to the extent possible ensure that courthouses or properly designated alternative facilities remain accessible to carry out essential judicial functions. However, no court may disregard the restrictions imposed by the Order as extended and modified.
6. Discretion of Judges to Reimpose Deadlines in Specific Cases
After the date of this order, and with the exception of deadlines regarding jury trials and grand juries, judges are granted the following authority to reimpose deadlines set by statutes, rules, regulations, and court orders that have been suspended, tolled, or extended by the Order Declaring Statewide Judicial Emergency as extended and modified and to establish new deadlines and schedules. In pending or newly filed cases, a judge may reimpose or establish such deadlines on a case-by-case basis after considering the particular circumstances of the case, including any public health concerns and known individual health, economic, and other concerns regarding the litigants, lawyers, witnesses, and other persons who may be involved in the case. The judge must enter a written order in the record for the case identifying the deadlines that are being reimposed or established. Standing orders applicable to multiple cases and orders simply reimposing previous scheduling orders are not permitted. The judge should allow any party or other participant in a case to seek reconsideration of such an order for good cause shown.
Judges should in particular consider reimposing deadlines that do not require any or only insignificant in-person contact, such as deadlines for filing and responding to pleadings, motions, and briefs, written discovery in civil cases, scheduling of depositions that may be taken remotely or require few participants, and scheduling of hearings requiring only legal argument or few participants.
7. Judicial COVID-19 Task Force: Comments Solicited
A Judicial COVID-19 Task Force is hereby established to assist courts in conducting remote proceedings and in restoring more in-court proceedings, in particular jury trials and grand jury proceedings. The Task Force will include judges from the various classes of court and will obtain input from key stakeholders including the State Bar of Georgia, prosecutors and public defenders, civil plaintiff and defense attorneys, court clerks, sheriffs, and the public.
To assist in evaluating the effects of the Order Declaring Statewide Judicial Emergency as extended and modified, comments are solicited from judges, lawyers, and the general public. Comments should be delivered in Word or PDF format by email to JCTFcomments@gasupreme.us.
With regard to all matters in this challenging time, all lawyers are reminded of their obligations of professionalism. Judges are also reminded of their obligation to dispose of all judicial matters promptly and efficiently, including by insisting that court officials, litigants, and their lawyers cooperate with the court to achieve that end, although this obligation must not take precedence over the obligation to dispose of matters fairly and with patience, which requires sensitivity to health and other concerns raised by court officials, litigants and their lawyers, witnesses, and others.
9. Notice Provisions
Notice will be provided as to the expected termination of the Order as extended and modified at least one week in advance to allow courts to plan for the transition to fuller operations.
The impact of COVID-19 varies across the state, and the level of response and adjustment will likewise vary among courts. Courts are strongly encouraged to make available to the public the steps they are taking to safely increase operations while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing that not all courts have a social media presence or website, the Administrative Office of the Courts will continue to post court-specific information as it becomes available on the AOC website at https://georgiacourts.gov/covid-19-preparedness/.
Pursuant to OCGA § 38-3-63, notice and service of a copy of this order shall immediately be sent to the judges and clerks of all courts in this State and to the clerk of the Court of Appeals of Georgia, such service to be accomplished through means to assure expeditious receipt, which include electronic means. Notice shall also be sent to the media, the State Bar of Georgia, and the officials and entities listed below and shall constitute sufficient notice of the issuance of this order to the affected parties, counsel for the affected parties, and the public.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 11th day of May, 2020.