Chief Justice Harold Melton, Supreme Court of Georgia. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Chief Justice Harold Melton, Supreme Court of Georgia. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia has extended a statewide judicial emergency for the second time, even as Gov. Brian Kemp lifted the state’s shelter in place restrictions and allowed businesses to reopen. 

Chief Justice Harold Melton’s announcement, issued Monday morning, extends the judicial emergency through June 12. It was scheduled to expire May 13. June 12 is the date the governor’s shelter-in-place recommendation for medically fragile people, including the elderly, expires.

Melton’s new order will continue the suspension of all criminal and civil jury trials through June 12 and also bars courts from summoning and impaneling new trial and grand juries. He said the suspensions are necessary because of the need for recommended social distancing and to protect the health of large groups of people who are typically assembled in response to jury summonses.

Melton said he was extending the state judicial emergency because, “The courts are different from most private establishments and public places in that we compel people to attend court proceedings, and that requires us to be extra cautious.”

Melton intends to sign an order codifying his announcement later this week.

Melton made his announcement as Georgia’s COVID-19 cases continued to rise. The state on Monday reported 29,045 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 5,429 hospitalizations and 1,192 deaths.

The governor has allowed small businesses and the state’s beaches to reopen if they met specific sanitation and social distancing guidelines. Kemp’s directives specifically superseded municipal or county restrictions, but they do not extend to the judiciary. 

A Dougherty County probate judge died after a juror who had contracted the coronavirus served on a weeklong trial at the county courthouse in March, and at least four other judges across the state have been sickened with the virus. 

Melton stressed in his announcement that Georgia courts remain open to handle critical and essential court services. His new order will urge courts across the state to develop plans for restoring noncritical court operations that can be conducted remotely by a combination of videoconferencing or adhering to social distancing and other guidelines currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Melton also urged the courts to increase the use of technology to conduct remote judicial proceedings as a preferred alternative to having in-person proceedings. The state Supreme Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals last month instituted remote oral arguments via Zoom.