Judge Wade Padgett. Judge Wade Padgett of the Augusta Judicial Circuit at the Traffic Seminar in Columbus in 2018.

The Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges is proposing to amend its current uniform rules to allow civil non-jury trials to be conducted by video conference. 

The proposal, drafted as an amendment to Rule 9.1 of the Uniform Rules of Superior Court, would allow video conference trials only in cases where a constitutional right to trial by jury does not apply, or where the parties have waived their right to a jury trial.

“We got struck with a reality no one wanted, no one prepared for,” said Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett of the the Augusta Judicial Circuit and president-elect of the state Council of Superior Court Judges. “As a court system, we had to adapt … We have to make the rules correspond not only with our needs but the law.”

Rule 9.1 currently permits telephone, but not videoconferencing, but only for pretrial or posttrial proceedings in civil actions. The Supreme Court of Georgia temporarily amended the rule March 27 to permit the use of video conferences as well as telephone conferences for the duration of the statewide judicial emergency.

On Monday, Chief Justice Harold Melton announced he is extending the statewide judicial emergency, which is now set to expire June 12.

The draft amendment under consideration would, if approved by the Supreme Court, remain in effect for 180 days after the current judicial emergency expires.

Accommodations would be made to preserve privileged attorney-client communications. To ensure that a video trial would be accessible to the public, notice must be given to the parties and the public that a proceeding will take place by remote video conference. The public would be provided the opportunity to view the video conference either by joining it, through a live video stream or other similar means.

The Supreme Court is soliciting comments on the proposal from the bench, members of the State Bar of Georgia and the public through 4 p.m. Wednesday. Comments can be emailed to rules@gasupreme.us

Padgett said the judiciary had begun working with prosecutors, public defenders, county sheriffs, and the state Board of Corrections about conducting remote criminal arraignments from the state’s prisons that even before Melton issued his first judicial emergency declaration in March. It was efficient, inexpensive and secure, he said.

Padgett said he has already conducted civil trials involving divorces and custody during the judicial emergency. He and a number of other judges across the state have already begun offering to preside over civil and domestic non-jury trials for anyone who wants them.

Once the pandemic has sufficiently abated, he said, “We are going to have demands on courtroom space like we never had.” But, he added, the courts would also likely have limitations on what were once 100-person calendar calls and on large jury pools for multiple juries.

The amended rule gives the courts the ability during the judicial emergency “to get more done effectively than we could otherwise.”

yle Griffin Warshauer, Douglas C. Dumont & Michael J. Warshauer. L-R Lyle Griffin Warshauer, Douglas C. Dumont & Michael J. Warshauer. Photo: John Disney/ALM

Lyle Griffin Warshauer, president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, said trial lawyers “will support anything that will move civil cases along with respect to discovery, motion practice and ultimately the resolution of cases.”

While her members are, by definition, trial lawyers who like jury trials, she said video teleconferencing “makes perfect sense” for non-jury trials where the parties all agree. She said that she is hopeful the pretrial proceedings will include resolution of discovery dispute and motion hearings.

“Everyone is thinking about it,” she added. “We are very glad to know at the highest levels that people are thinking about what needs to be done to avoid what’s going to be an inevitable backlog of cases when we come out of this.”