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All Eyes on Georgia

Americans are asking: “We know about Georgia’s elections, but what about its courts?” We’re here to tell you.

On Friday, the Georgia Supreme Court extended its prohibition on jury trials. The order notes that when the emergency is finally lifted, it will still be another month before trials start. And “[i]t also should be recognized that there are substantial backlogs of unindicted and untried cases, and due to ongoing public health precautions, these proceedings will not occur at the scale or with the speed they occurred before the pandemic.” It would appear that civil trials are not returning to Georgia state court any time soon.

In federal court, the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, in Atlanta, has continued all jury trials that were set for January and February.

All Eyes on Georgia (Courts)

We’re talking about jury trials, of course. (Were you thinking of something else this morning?) Even as coronavirus cases spike, with 2,755 cases and 43 deaths yesterday, with positivity rates around 20%, Georgia is restarting state court jury trials. Some courts can’t accommodate social distancing, so trials will be held in civic centers, sports arenas, school gymnasiums or lodges associated with groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, according to Criminal trials will take priority. In those counties that have announced specific procedures for conducting trials, if a juror tests positive in the middle of a trial, the show will go on.

A “Fine-Looking” Mask in Use in Georgia Federal Court

Masked trials have been a problem, because lawyers want to see jurors, and they want jurors to see speakers. reports that the US District Court for the Middle District of Georgia “got around that question this week by securing clear, plastic masks for witnesses to wear while testifying.” Here’s the mask, called “The ClearMask”:

A Fine-Looking Mask in Use in Georgia Federal Court--The Jury Returns

Image via The ClearMask

This was one accommodation of many for a criminal defendant who refused to waive his rights under the Speedy Trial Act. There is otherwise a moratorium on jury trials in this district. In the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta, jury trials are on hold until at least January.

No Federal Jury Trials in Atlanta before 2021

The US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia entered a general order providing that there will be no criminal or civil jury trials before January 3, 2021. The court compared the public health situation now to that existing on March 16, 2020, when it issued its first coronavirus order at the beginning of the shut-down phase. The court observed that “the prevalence of COVID-19 within the District is far greater than it was on March 16, 2020.” The court further observed that the total number of deaths continues to rise, no vaccine or cure is available and there has been no change to the president’s declaration of national emergency. Interestingly, those observations are true of nearly every judicial district. Further, they will likely be true well past January 2021.

The court also notes:

Capabilities provided by technology, while helpful, are inadequate to offset the impediments currently confronted by counsel in this District. Other aspects of case preparation have been similarly impacted. As a result of Georgia’s level of COVID-19 infections and test positivity, witness travel has been problematic due to quarantine regulations in effect in many states that apply to persons traveling to and from Georgia. These circumstances and others have severely impeded if not prevented counsels’ ability to prepare for trial.

Look for this language to be cited in motions to continue trials in other districts.

 McDermott’s litigation team monitors US courts as they reopen amid the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.