Ga. Supreme Court considers allowing some court cases to proceed online

    The Georgia Supreme Court justices are not reporting to their new courtroom during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The court is considering a rule to allow video streaming for non-jury civil court cases. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

    Georgia could move some non-jury civil trials proceedings online or over broadcast for half a year to ease an expected backlog created by fears the new coronavirus could spread during hearings in crowded courtrooms.

    The Georgia Supreme Court is considering a rule proposed by the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges to allow video conferencing in cases when oral arguments and other in-person interaction isn’t necessary. The deadline to email comments to the Supreme Court about the rule ends today at 4 p.m.

    Associations representing judges and attorneys say the rule should help keep cases from piling up as much as they might before courts can return to something close to normal operations. 

    If passed, the rule will remain in effect for 180 days past the end of the statewide judicial emergency scheduled to end on June 12. Georgia’s Chief Justice Harold Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency March 14 due to “the potential infection of those who work in or are required to appear in our courts.”

    Since the pandemic hit Georgia, some judges in the state are holding court over Zoom and other video-conferencing services. The U.S. Supreme Court hosted an hour-long session on Tuesday over the phone. 

    “During this pandemic, we have been forced into the 21st Century, to look for ways that we can use some under-utilized resources to get the job done on certain types of cases,” said Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett, president-elect of the Superior Court judges council.

    Making progress in court cases through video conferencing is especially helpful when some pre-trial proceedings end relatively quickly, said the Augusta Judicial Circuit judge.

    “One of the things we’re realizing is whenever we go live again, the things we used to do in one day are going to take two days or three days because we can’t put 40, 50, 60 people in a room,” Padgett said.

    The judges council presented the rule after getting input from attorneys and others affected by it, Padgett said.

    Lyle Griffin Warshauer, president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, said her organization supports using technology to keep cases moving through the courts.

    “If we don’t do it, when we do come out of this, the backlog is going to be almost insurmountable,” she said. “We’re going to be talking about not just about weeks or months, but years in some respects to figuring out how to reschedule things. 

    “If we’re starting pre-trial matters on the day an emergency order is lifted, that’s just a waste of all this time we could be doing these kinds of things,” Warshauer said.

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.