A trial court room at the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn. As in person cases are set to begin new procedures have been put in place to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the court room. This includes plexiglass dividing the judge’e bench, the witness stand, and the attorney’s seats. The jurors are spread around the courtroom with clearly marked seating arrangements to ensure social distancing. There is a live webcam for the defendants friends and family to view the case from a safe distance in a separate room, and clear face masks and face shields are available to allow participants to show their facial expressions. (Photo: Ryland West/ALM) Kings County Supreme Court, Brooklyn, set up for in person trials. (Photo: Ryland West/ALM)

Just two weeks after lifting a seven-month suspension of in-person jury trials, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia has signaled that nothing in that order is irreversible, given that “COVID is not nearly done with us just yet.”

Chief Justice Harold D. Melton of the Georgia Supreme Court. (Photo: Jeffrey Etheridge/Auburn University) Chief Justice Harold D. Melton of the Georgia Supreme Court. (Photo: Jeffrey Etheridge/Auburn University)

Chief Justice Harold Melton told an emergency meeting of the Judicial Council of Georgia on Oct. 26, “Nothing that we said in that previous order is irreversible. … If you need to roll back any [trial] proceedings, at the local level, you can.” 

“We as a court are not mandating anything,” Melton told judges who attended the virtual emergency meeting. “What we did initially is place a suspension on jury trials. Now that suspension is removed. It’s up to you guys to figure out how you want to do that, [and] the pace you decide to do that. We don’t intend to get in the way of your judgment, nor do I think you want us to.”

“We do want you to be mindful and careful,” he added. “The most recent reports are the winter is going to rough. … So let’s continue to exercise sound judgment.”

Melton also announced his intent to begin drawing up guidelines for remote jury trials. The chief justice did so after acknowledging he had placed a discussion of instituting remote jury trials on hold in favor of restoring in-person jury trials.

But he told other judges at the emergency meeting, “It’s time to start looking at what and how, what can we do and how can we do in the area of virtual jury trials.”

“Given the fact that the projections for the COVID spread are not favorable, it is advisable, I think, that we have as many options as possible on the table,” he said.

Those options also include remote rather than in-person grand juries. In September, Melton lifted the suspension on summoning grand juries that, like the suspension of jury trials, has been in place since March. During the meeting, Associate Justice Keith Blackwell discussed draft guidelines he has circulated for conducting remote grand jury proceedings , including hybrid methods that include convening small groups of grand jurors in different locations that are then linked by video.

Blackwell suggested a hybrid remote approach “might be optimal … to help keep grand jurors on the task at hand.”

Melton also informed the council of so far unsuccessful efforts to locate COVID-19 rapid tests for use by the judiciary in moving forward with jury trials. He also asked for help in locating and acquiring testing supplies, adding, “We would love to be able to add that to the arsenal” of options available to the courts in restoring full operations.

Melton was not the only member of the judiciary to signal new worries about the extent of COVID-19′s community spread in Georgia. Brian Amero, Henry County’s chief superior court judge and president of the state Council of Superior Court Judges, asked General Counsel Jennifer Dalton of the Georgia Department of Public Health, who was present at the online meeting, whether the state health department has taken a position “regarding when it’s safe for us to have jury trials.”

Amero questioned whether holding jury trials was safe if the state is reporting 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000.

“Is that a threshold that is important?” Amero asked. “Should we be having jury trials above that number? Should we be waiting until they’re below that number?” 

On Friday, the state Department of Public Health website reported 347,714 confirmed COVID-19 cases across the state with a 14-day average of 186 cases per 100,000. Confirmed cases have also been steadily increasing since Oct. 1, with more than 10,000 new cases reported the week of OCt. 17-23, the most recent data available on the state health department website.

The COVID-19 positivity rate exceeds 10 percent in the majority of the state’s 159 counties, the state health department reported.

Dalton declined to address the issue but said she would take it up with Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Melton signaled his concern just a week after Brantley County Probate Judge Karen Batten died of COVID-19—the third probate judge to succumb to ravages of the virus.

He did so just two days before the Judicial Pandemic Task Force released a public service announcement featuring the chief justice intended to reassure jurors summoned for in-person jury trials that the courts will adhere to “rigorous safety protocols” and would “do everything we can to keep you and your loved ones as safe was we can as you serve.”