In response to COVID-19, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Justice Melton, issued a statewide judicial state of emergency in March, which suspended all in-person jury trials. Nearly 6 months have passed without jury trials, and the backlog of cases has reached unprecedented levels. In addition to logistical issues, the delays raise constitutional concerns related to the right to a speedy trial and to a trial by a jury of peers. Although the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges considered amending state rules to allow certain proceedings to occur by teleconference, jury trials have remained suspended. 

In the latest judicial emergency order, Chief Justice Melton states that the continued prohibition against jury trials cannot continue, “even if the pandemic continues, because our judicial system, and the criminal justice system in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial.” The order directs each county to establish a local committee tasked with developing guidelines to safely resume jury trials and notes that courts in Georgia will likely be authorized to resume jury trials as early as October 10, with actual trials occurring as early as November. 

The Judicial COVID-19 Task Force issued guidance for resuming jury trials, even as the pandemic continues to plague the state. Initially noting that criminal cases should receive priority status given the unique constitutional rights that are at issue in those proceedings, the guidance then goes on to provide high-level protocols for various aspects of jury trials. 

Physical Space Protocols

The Task Force’s guidance incorporates much of the CDC’s recommendations with respect to social distancing and cleaning protocols. The guidance encourages courthouses to consider, among other things: 

  • Installing social distancing markets, plexiglass barriers, and hand sanitizing stations where appropriate; 
  • Implementing alternating schedules for use of certain rooms so that they can be cleaned between uses; 
  • Coordinating with courthouse security to implement screening protocols or other measures to allow for contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 exposures; and
  • Providing masks upon entry. 

Jury Trial Scheduling and Pre-Trial Conferences

The guidance provides the following recommendations with respect to scheduling trials and summoning jurors: 

  • Schedule fewer jury trials than normal and coordinate schedules among judges to minimize the number of trials happening at one time; 
  • Consider options and develop a plan for the admission of exhibits to minimize the handling of evidence at trial; 
  • Summon more jurors than normal in anticipation that fewer jurors will report due to COVID-19 hardships, lack of child care, or holding a job in an essential industry; 
  • Provide safety information with jury summonses; 
  • Consider questionnaires to screen for potential COVID-19 exposure and illness; and
  • Stagger juror arrival time (noting that qualification may have to take place over several days).

Impaneling and Qualifying Jurors

The Task Force provided the following recommendations for voir dire and impaneling a jury: 

  • Consider use of transparent face shields during voir dire to reduce hearing impairments or language challenges; 
  • Question jurors in smaller panels;
  • Issue electronic or written questionnaires in advance to streamline voir dire; 
  • Consider conducting voir dire remotely; and
  • Prepare for jurors who refuse to appear.

Seating the Jurors and Conducting the Trial

During the trial itself, the Task Force recommends the following: 

  • Seat jurors in the gallery instead of the jury box to maximize social distancing; 
  • Allow juror deliberations to occur in larger rooms; 
  • Post social distancing reminders for jurors on breaks; 
  • Present evidence digitally where possible; 
  • Consider having certain witnesses appear remotely; 
  • Create a plan for sidebar conversations; 
  • Consider how sequestration will be affected by live-streaming of trials; and 
  • Implement protocols for attorneys to converse with their client without having to whisper in each other’s faces 

The commencement of jury trials understandably concerns many in the public who fear for their safety if called for jury duty. The Judicial COVID-19 Task Force has secured a $100,000 grant to create public service announcements intended to reassure those called for jury duty that the courthouses will abide by the Task Force’s guidance and other CDC recommendations. While much remains uncertain about the future course of the pandemic and its effect on the judiciary, Chief Justice Melton’s statements regarding the urgent need to resume jury trials is some indication that the judiciary’s appetite for continuing to push the pause button on jury trials is quickly dwindling. 

The attorneys at Chilivis Grubman have significant experience with both civil and criminal jury trials.  If you need assistance with such a matter, please contact us today..