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.