ATLANTA — Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton Friday extended the statewide judicial emergency that has been in effect since the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the state in mid-March.

Melton signed an order prohibiting jury trials not already in progress. As with previous orders, the chief justice’s 10th emergency order also urged all courts “to use technology, when practicable and lawful, to conduct remote judicial proceedings as a safer alternative to in-person proceedings.”

The order also reminded courts that any in-person proceedings “must be conducted in full compliance with public health guidance.”

Melton included a caveat that grand jury hearings and trials will not actually start until a month or longer after a process for resuming them has been put in place due to the time required to summon potential jurors.

Courts have continued to hold hearing deemed essential but trial and filing deadlines have been suspended since the first order was issued in March.

As part of planning toward resuming in-person jury trials the Floyd County annexed the Forum River Center to be used as part of the courthouse. Grand jury proceeding have been held at the event venue since mid-November.

During a lull in the number of new COVID-19 cases, courts began to prepare for the resumption of jury trials. Preparations had begun in October and that time a committee comprised of local judges, attorneys and law enforcement put together a tentative plan to fully reopen.

That plan covers, among other things, how to comply with social distancing recommendations prior to and during a trial as well as where jurors will deliberate after a trial.

That same committee also has been working on ways to allow public access to court proceedings, which could include remote access.

However, a stark rise in new COVID-19 cases in November and December derailed plans to resume jury trials.

The order also acknowledged substantial backlogs of unindicted and untried cases.

“Due to ongoing public health precautions, these proceedings will not occur at the scale or with the speed they occurred before the pandemic,” the order stated.

As a result, statutory deadlines for indictments and jury trials will remain suspended, Melton wrote.

Friday’s order extends the statewide judicial emergency until Feb. 7 at 11:59 p.m.

Rome News-Tribune Editor John Bailey contributed to this report.

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