ATLANTA — Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton asked members of the General Assembly Tuesday to pass legislation aimed at shrinking a serious backlog of jury trials resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
The bill, which the Georgia Senate passed overwhelmingly early this month and is now before the state House of Representatives, would allow trial courts to continue suspending statutory speedy trial deadlines during judicial emergencies such as the pandemic.
Last week, Melton ordered jury trials to resume in Georgia a year after he suspended them because of COVID-19. But so many cases have piled up that it will take two or three years to work through the backlog, he said during his annual State of the Judiciary message to a joint session of the House and Senate.
“Not only will we have significantly more cases, but the process of moving them through the system at least initially will go more slowly due to all the safety protocols,” he said. “As we resume jury trials, if we’re only able to move at a third of the pace, we will be relieving some of the pressure, but the backlog will continue to grow.”
Melton praised judges and court staffs across the state for adjusting quickly to the new conditions the pandemic forced upon them, as in-person proceedings went virtual.
“This past year, I have witnessed first-hand that your judges and courts are remarkably resilient, flexible, creative, and committed in their mission to uphold the law and mete out justice fairly and equitably,” he said. “Justice and the rule of law cannot wait on a pandemic.”
But while the courts have remained open, jury trials had to be put on hold to protect public safety, Melton said.
“The decision to open jury trials is different from opening private businesses,” he said. “Unlike when individuals choose whether to visit a store, or a gym, or a restaurant, when a citizen receives a jury summons, that’s not an invitation, it’s an order. We compel people to come to court.
“It has therefore been critical that when we resumed jury trials, we did it right – with the necessary safeguards in place.”
Melton thanked members of a task force he appointed last May that developed those safeguards to protect court employees and the public.
The chief justice also noted that Tuesday’s appearance before the General Assembly was his last. He announced last month he would be stepping down in July after 16 years on the Georgia Supreme Court.
The justices unanimously elected Presiding Justice David Nahmias last week to succeed Melton as chief justice and selected Justice Michael Boggs to assume the role of presiding justice.
“There are no two more able,” Melton said. “Our state is extremely fortunate to have them in those roles.”