By Joe Johnson
Judges in Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties had hoped to next month resume jury trials that were placed on hold due to the statewide COVID-19 Judicial Emergency, but the four Superior Court judges recently decided to push the resumption of trials back to March, according to Western Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Eric Norris.
The Western Judicial Circuit includes both counties.
“Part of the consideration is that we have a new sheriff-elect who will take office in January,” Norris said. “The new sheriff is responsible for courthouse security, which would include the Classic Center for trial purposes, and I think he needs time to assemble his staff and leadership and have input into the manning and plan of the security part.”
Former Athens-Clarke police Sgt. John Q. Williams begins his term as Clarke County sheriff on Jan. 1.
Because of health concerns posed by the pandemic, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harld Melton in March 2020 issued an emergency order that suspended all but the most essential courthouse functions.
As a result, there is now a backlog of hundreds of cases waiting to go before a grand jury and that are ready for trial.
After six extensions of the order, Melton in October issued a seventh order that stated grand juries and trials can resume at the discretion of the chief judge of each of the state’s judicial circuits.
Norris subsequently formed a task force that included stakeholders from both counties to consider how to resume court proceedings safely and within the scope of guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Supreme Court.
The judge said that the task force had tentatively scheduled the use of the Classic Center and Civic Center from January to June, but that timeframe could be adjusted based on such factors as the availability of vaccines, community spread and overall community conditions.
In Athens, instead of within the close confines of the 206-year-old courthouse on East Washington Street, grand juries and jury trials are set to resume at the spacious Classic Center on North Thomas Street, which prior to the pandemic regularly hosted thousands for concerts, conferences, weddings and other large events. Use of the Classic Center will allow for social distancing guidelines to slow the spread of the deadly virus.
Norris said another factor in moving back the start date for trial and grand juries was because voters in the Western Judicial Circuit recently elected a new district attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, who takes office on Jan. 1.
“I think she needs time to assemble her staff and leadership and we are not sure what ADA’s are staying or leaving,” Norris said.
“Lastly, the Covid-19 numbers are increasing and ACC schools will be virtual for a portion of January, which would affect the participation of jurors (parents) who are monitoring virtual learning,” the judge said. “All these factors were considered for trials resuming in Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County. Grand Jury has not yet resumed and that is in discussion, however, more discussion with the DA-elect is necessary to consider when Grand Jury would resume for Clarke and Oconee.”