The Covid-19 crisis has caused everyone to rethink what it means to conduct “business as normal.” Georgia’s judicial system is no different. Social distancing does not allow for in-person evidentiary hearings or trials. Because there are no provisions for how to handle such matters remotely, trials in Georgia courts have been temporarily put on pause. Given that no one knows when the pandemic will end, permitting the return of in-person trials, the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges is envisioning a new normal that permits trials by video conference.
Prior to Covid-19, Uniform Superior Court Rule 9.1 granted trial courts discretion to conduct video conference for certain pre-trial or post-trial proceedings in civil actions. The use of video conferencing was even more restricted; limited only to certain proceedings enumerated in Rule 9.2. Nothing in the Uniform Rules permitted trials by telephone or video conference; the proceedings were required to be conducted in person.
On March 14, 2020, Chief Justice Melton of the Georgia Supreme Court declared a statewide judicial emergency suspending all but essential court functions, including trials. In connection with the statewide judicial emergency, the Georgia Supreme Court modified Uniform Rule 9.1 to allow video conferencing to the same extent telephone conference were permitted. Although that modification expanded the use of video conference in civil matters, it did not allow courts to conduct trials by video conference.
Recognizing that nearly two months without trials only compounded the court backlog and delayed the vindication of litigants’ rights, the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges proposed an amendment to Uniform Rule 9.1 that would allow certain trials to proceed via video conference. Under the proposed rule, courts could conduct civil, non-jury trials remotely (i.e. trials in cases where the constitutional right to a jury does not apply or where the parties waived their right to a jury trial) for the duration of the statewide judicial emergency and for 180 days after it expired.
The rule is meant to stymie the inevitable surge in demand for courtroom space once the pandemic abates enough for courts to reopen. Superior Court Judge and president-elect of Georgia’s Council of Superior Court Judges, Wade Padgett, explained that the proposed rule provides shuttered courts with a tool “to get more done effectively than [they] could otherwise.”
The proposed rule was submitted for comments from the bench, bar, and general public. Comments were due May 6 and we expect a final decision on the proposed rule any day. Until then, litigants will continue waiting to have their day in court, whether that be the physical courthouse or a virtual version of it.
The attorneys at Chilivis Grubman represent clients of all types and sizes in connection with all stages of state and federal court litigation. If you need assistance with such a matter, please contact us today.