City Politics

The Pandemic and the Courts

The judicial emergency and a conversation with Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Melton
Atlanta Black Lives Matter Protest / Photo by SARAH KALLIS

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State…

For many and arguably most Americans, the pain of COVID has been far more nuanced than just the anxiety or reality of getting sick. Everyday the pandemic exposes ‘fralilities and inequalities’ in systems that had already disadvantaged some communities with impunity.

Since March, unemployment in the US rose from 3.2% to 10.4% and hiring shrunk by 30%, according to the BBC. Wage workers suffered massively with retail and entertainment being the largest share of the 22 million jobs to disappear. Companies big and small have declared bankruptcy, while watching the net worth of the billionaire class grow by $637 million, according to Business Insider. Thousands of their former employees may face eviction or foreclosure in the coming months, while some twelve million have lost their healthcare at the point of its greatest necessity.

Economic hardships have exacerbated social ones. An insurgence of an additional 5.9 million guns has increased violent crime in both domestic and community settings. As compared to 2019, shooting incidents in Atlanta have increased by 19% this year to date, according to CBNC.  The twin pandemic of police violence in response to crime and a lack thereof sparked national protests that generated well over 10,000 arrests including 298 in one weekend in Atlanta following the killing of George Floyd.

The hardships of the moment are practically innumerable because they are defined uniquely by the circumstances of the people who have experienced them. However, if there is a commonality it is that those seeking justice have often been pushed into the courts.

The courts, not one to be left out, have also faced substantial dysfunction in the face of the pandemic. Delays and backlogs during this period are the norm. At the onset of the pandemic Justice Harold Melton, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, issued a judicial emergency saying, “No court may compel the attendance of any person for a court proceeding if the court proceeding or the court facility in which it is to be held is not in compliance with this order, including in particular large calendar calls.” 

Since the original order, Justice Melton has extended the original order five times with each growing progressively less restrictive. Now the courts are allowed to meet in person for everything except jury trials – the lack of which limits the courts’ ability to hear criminal and many civil cases. Smaller court proceedings, like depositions, have increasingly been held over video conferencing platforms like Zoom. 

The judicial emergency as a calculation has undoubtedly saved lives, but not without a cost. Melton cites delays adversely affecting Georgians in need of legal action across the board Georgians arrested during protests have often been detained for long stints before being able to see a judge. Some couples seeking marriage licenses have faced delays, just as those who need divorce have had to delay separation.

Melton conceded that the pandemic has lasted much longer than he had originally anticipated. Like many others, legal executives expected the courts to be back to business by the middle of the summer, but that hope has obviously not been the reality.

The road ahead for the courts is uncertain, as it could be months before an official jury is called back into session. A swift reopening could assuage a rush on the legal system, but may only delay the inevitable. Court cases tend to lag behind recessions. In New York City in 2009 local courts closed the year following the great recession with a whopping 4.7 million cases that represented a breadth of financial trouble and associated crime. Experts fear that similar consequences may be ahead once the economic fallout of the impending recession is realized.

The silver lining in court delays is a phenomenon that some experts have called the demystification of the courts. Legal institutions have had to adapt to the situation by approaching cases with greater simplicity and efficiency and as a result have simplified the process.

When asked about adaptations, Melton was clearly excited about the progress. “We’ve been doing court in the same ways for decades. We have had to give thought to efficiency that we haven’t ever been forced to before” he continued, “Video conferencing technology has been used in ways that we hadn’t ever thought about. Traditionally, jail transport busses brought inmates to the courts for relatively routine preliminary matters in criminal cases. We learned that setting up video conferencing at the jails makes that process less expensive and more secure for everybody.”

This type of technology has the potential to make the legal process less expensive across the board by reducing the amount of travel. The idea of an attorney billing his client to drive across the state for a 15 minute interview may soon be one of the past. In the meantime, Melton promises that judges throughout Georgia are prepared to work overtime to weather what will certainly be a very busy couple of months.

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