Legalese — Courts in the Time of COVID

COVID-19 – CDC on Unsplash.com

During this COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of things have changed.  The Courts have changed their method of operation more than just about anything.  The reason being is that Courts take away an element of free will in a way that hardly any industry doesn’t.

You can decide to go to the grocery store or a restaurant or a bowling alley or a movie theater.  You can choose to take advantage of delivery services or home streaming services for your nourishment and entertainment.  For the most part, it is your choice (your employer willing, of course) if you leave your house and participate in most activities and there are no life-altering consequences one way or another.  But it isn’t your choice to go to Court.  You are compelled to go to Court.  If you are summoned or subpoenaed and you don’t show up, you are subject to being arrested and thrown in jail.  This changes the landscape.

Because people who are young and healthy as well as people with medical issues as well as people who are elderly as well as people who are young and healthy who live with or come into contact with older folks or people who are medically vulnerable, we have to think long and hard before compelling anyone to come into a building where they will come into contact with potentially infected people.  A traffic ticket, being a witness to a civil or criminal hearing should not potentially be a death sentence or send you to the hospital or even just lay you flat in your bed for a couple of weeks. 

So what do you do?  The show must go on, as they say, and justice delayed is justice denied.  The Judicial Council of Georgia, consisting of leadership from all the different classes of court and other legal leadership organizations like the State Bar, has discussed this quite in depth.  They have even created a COVID-19 task force to figure out how to handle the changing landscape.

The Courts’ response is complex, and will be hard to sum up in this short article.  Of course, all courts can’t respond the same because all courts are different.  They all have different resources, different physical facilities, and different needs.  What works for the Fulton County Superior Court is not going to work for the Probate Court in Coffee County.  The needs of the Supreme Court of Georgia are not the same as the needs of the Municipal Court in Loganville. 

In order to ensure as much consistency as possible, the Courts have put out guidelines.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Harold Melton, originally issued a Judicial Emergency Order in March, and has been issuing monthly extensions since.  Each order is more and more detailed as we learn more about what works and doesn’t work and the COVID-19 task force brings more information and ideas to the table.  You can read these orders by clicking here.  

If you want to know what your local courts are doing, there is a clearing house managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts.  Each Court is supposed to have a plan for how they are moving forward, and that plan is supposed to comply with federal, state, and local health guidelines.  Those plans can be found by clicking here.

None of what the Courts are doing is behind closed doors, though you may not know where to find it.  In fact, you can download the entire Judicial COVID-19 task force report as well as the Judicial Pandemic guide and some other pertinent information by clicking here.

This pandemic has challenged the Courts in ways never before seen.  We want to move forward with cases, but we want to do so in a way that protects the public and the court staff.  We’re not entirely sure what the best way to do that is, as the information at our disposal changes.  We have to remain flexible and be willing to be creative in solutions.  Please be patient, and know that we are trying as hard as we can to make things work. 

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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