Fulton County Courthouse Fulton County Courthouse (Photo: John Disney)

In an escalating effort to outrace the reported spread of the novel coronavirus in Georgia, half of Georgia’s judicial circuits have suspended court functions and on Monday two courthouses closed their doors for two weeks. 

Led by Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher’s decision last Friday morning to declare a judicial emergency in an order that will curtail court functions for at least the next 30 days, 24 of the superior court chief judges in 24 of state’s 49 judicial circuits soon followed suit. On Monday morning, judges in Henry and Clayton counties closed their courthouses for two weeks.  On Monday, Robert Russell, superior court  chief judge of the Atlantic Circuit, declared a judicial emergency and closed courthouses in Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, and Tatnall counties for 30 days.

Throughout Friday, chief superior court judges across the state began issuing their own circuit judical emergencies, most based on a template available from Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts. The judicial emergency orders vary from circuit to circuit, including the length of time court procedures will be suspended, what is postponed, and what may continue on schedule.  By Monday, the number of circuits operating under judicial emergency declarations doubled. (See updated list below).

Brasher handed down the order less than 24 hours after Harold Melton, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, convened an emergency telephone call with judicial leaders, directing them to consider limiting all nonessential functions in their courthouses for at least two weeks.  

In that conference call, Melton informed the judges that each circuit has the authority to declare a local judicial emergency, suspend jury trials, postpone the court calendar, or take other actions to shield the populace from the spread of the virus.

On Saturday, following Gov. Brian Kemp’s declaration of a state health emergency in Georgia, Melton declared a statewide judicial emergency.  Melton’s order, which will remain in effect through April 13, stated that the courts should remain open, where possible, to address essential functions, and courts should give priority to matters necessary to protect health, safety, and liberty of individuals.  But the order suspended or otherwise granted relief from a number of statutory judicial deadlines, including deadlines for issuing warrants and holding commitment hearings.

Over the weekend and on Monday, courts across the state paid heed. They include: 

  • Clayton County: Superior Court Chief Judge Geronda Carter closed the Clayton County Courthouse for business from March 16-March 30. When the courthouse reopens for business, a separate order Carter issued will continue in force that allows only essental non-jury matters to be conducted.  Carter’s order said that when the courthouse reopens, only essential, non-jury matters will be conducted and statutory filing requirments will be suspended or tolled. Carter said in her order she had no choice but to close the courthouse after the county government and Clayton schools were closed and she was unable to find anothe facility where court business could be transated.
  • Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit:  Superior Court Chief Judge Bemon McBride declared a judicial emergency in five counties, including Chatthoochee, Harris, Marion, Muscogee, Talbot, and Taylor counties,  canceling jury trials and ordering tht no jurors or grand jurors report through March 27.  The order also suspended all civil, domestic, and criminal docket calls but does not apply to non-jury criminal, civil, or domestic hearing, motion, and plea calendars.
  • Eastern Judicial Circuit:  Chatham County Superior Court Chief Judge Penny Haas Freesemann declared a judicial emergency curtailing all judicial operations except those deemed essential in each class of court and all clerk’s offices in Chatham County for three weeks from last Friday, suspending all jury trials and requirements for jurors to report.  Unlike many of her colleagues, Freesemann did not suspend or toll any statutes of limitations, filing dates, or deadlines or waive any legally required court filings.
  • Appalachian Circuit:  declarationSuperior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver’s judicial emergency for all courts in Pickens, Gilmer, and Fannin counties postpones jury trials and oders jurors and grand jurors not to report for 30 days.  No civil or non-essential criminal mattesr will be heard unless they can be handled via video or teleconferencing, except jail bond hearings, jail first appearance hearings, jail pleas, emergency matters involving children, family violence or stalking or other matters Weaver deems an emergency.  Weaver also tolled statutory and legal deadlines and directed parties and lawyers with hearings scheduled between March 13 and April 11 to contact her office.
  • Atlantic Circuit: Chief Judge Robert Russell’s March 16  order closes the courthouses in Bryan, Evans, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, and Tatnall counties for 30 days. The order suspends jury trials and directs all jurors and grand jurors not to report. The suspension includes jury selection for three scheduled trials that Russell said in a notice accompanying his order “would in my estimation involved over 500 people in one courthouse.”

The following courts curtailed operations last Friday.

  • Fulton County:  Brasher immediately called a halt to all jury trials and directed that jurors or grand jurors should not report for duty. He canceled all nonessential matters scheduled to be heard within the next 30 days unless they can be conducted via video or teleconferencing. The chief judge said that parties or attorneys involved in any nonessential matters should contact the chambers of the judge assigned to their case with any questions about correlating their legal duties and compliance with the emergency order. He also suspended, tolled and extended all deadlines including statutes of limitation and time limits on speedy trial, commitment hearings, returning bills of indictment or criminal accusations or bringing matters before the grand jury. The order also allowed for the suspension of all other legal proceedings including calendar calls involving large numbers of litigants, lawyers and others.
  • Municipal Court of Atlanta: Municipal Court will remain open, but court operations will be “substantially abbreviated” for the next 30 days. The court has posted thousands of citations at court.atlantaga.gov that previously could only be paid in person and that now may be paid electronically.
  • DeKalb County: Superior Court Chief Judge Asha Jackson declared a judicial emergency order suspending jury trials for 30 days and directing jurors and grand jurors not to report to court during that time. The judge also suspended all nonessential court matters unless they may be conducted by video or teleconferencing. She also tolled all legal deadlines and statutes of limitations. 
  • Cobb County: Superior Court Chief Judge Reuben Green declared a 30-day judicial emergency covering all the courts and clerk’s offices in Cobb County, suspending jury trials and directing that no jurors report. Civil matters will be limited.
  • Gwinnett County: Superior Court Chief George Hutchinson declared a judicial emergency for all courts and clerk’s offices, suspending jury trials for two weeks and directing jurors and grand jurors not to report. Hutchinson also suspended all civil and nonessential court matters for two weeks. Essential matters include arrest and search warrants; first appearance hearings; family violence and stalking temporary protective order applications and hearings; and misdemeanor jail court calendars. No new garnishment filings will be accepted by magistrate, state or superior court while the emergency is in place. 
  • Henry County: Superior Court Chief Judge Brian Amero declared a judicial emergency. His order cancels Superior Court proceedings through March 27.  Veteran’s and drug courts scheduled to convene March 13, March 26, and April 16 are canceled. Judge Trea Pipkin’s March 16 criminal calendar moves to April 15 and his March 18 calendar moves to April 16.  Amero’s March 17 criminal calendar is postponed until April 15. Judge Holly Veal’s March 18 and March 25 criminal calendars move to April 15; her March 27 criminal pretrial calendar is canceled. On Monday, Henry County closed all courts to the public and suspended all judicial proceedings until April 13. Court dates falling within that time period will be reset. 
  • Macon Judicial Circuit: Superior Court Chief Judge Howard Simms declared a circuitwide judicial emergency. Simms’ order suspends jury and grand jury service and all jury trials for 30 days. No nonessential matters will be heard by the courts while the emergency remains in effect, unless they can be conducted via video or teleconferencing. Like Brasher’s order, Simms’ order suspends or tolls statutes of limitations and other time-sensitive deadlines. The order includes the Bibb, Crawford, and Peach County superior courts.
  • Augusta Judicial Circuit: Superior Court Chief Judge Carl Brown declared 30-day judicial emergencies for all courts and clerks’ offices in Columbia, Richmond and Burke counties, suspending all jury trials, jury service and nonessential court business. 
  • Floyd County:  Superior Court Chief Judge Bryant Durham has suspended jury trials for the week of March 16. He has also suspended arraignments, pleas and calendar calls, including trial calendars, for 30 days. Durham said that jury trials already scheduled to start after next week will still go forward. He said that, beginning Monday, courthouse visitors will be questioned as to whether they are or have recently had a cough or fever, traveled outside the country or been exposed to the novel coronavirus or in contact with someone who has been exposed. 
  • Blue Ridge Circuit:  Superior Court Chief Judge Ellen McElyea declared a judicial emergency canceling all Cherokee County Superior Court jury trials scheduled the weeks of March 23 and March 30. The judge also ordered that no civil or nonessential matters be heard for two weeks and suspended statutory time limits.
  • Dougherty County: Superior Court Chief Judge Willie Lockette declared a judicial emergency, canceling all jury trials and suspending all civil and other nonessential matters for 30 days.

The Daily Report continues to update this list.