By Joe Johnson
Trials are scheduled to resume next month in Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, after trials were cancelled a year ago due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Western Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Eric Norris announced Wednesday.
“The Superior Court Judges met last week. We anticipate the Supreme Court will give the green light for trials around March 8,” Norris said. “Based on the current order we can begin sending summons for trials and we looked at the term calendar as to when to resume. March 22 is an Oconee trial week and March 29 is an Athens trial week.”
The Oconee County Clerk of Courts office began mailing juror summonses this week, and the Athen-Clarke clerk’s office will begin sending out summonses next week.
“We’re urging all residents to respond to the summons to be a juror, because the right to a trial by jury is fundamental to the American system of justice,” Norris said.
Jury trials were suspended statewide since March 14, 2020, when Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton declared a judicial emergency due to the pandemic.
Since then, Melton has extended the emergency every 30 days, as state law permits. In the Sept. 10 extension order, Melton directed every county to establish a local committee made up of members of the judiciary to develop a locally-tailored plan for safely resuming jury trials.
Norris said it was anticipated that the next extension order on March 9, 2021 will authorize the resumption of jury trials as local conditions allow.
The committee for the Western Judicial Circuit, which is composed of Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, is comprised of judiciary members, local public health experts. and county government officials.
The committee identified the Classic Center on North Thomas Street as an alternative location for Athens-Clarke County jury selection and jury trials to safely resume.
For Oconee County, the Oconee County Civic Center on Hog Mountain Road in Watkinsville was identified as an alternative location for jury assembly to take place in a manner consistent with public health guidelines.
Jury trials will still be held in the large courtrooms at the Oconee County Courthouse with appropriate social distancing guidelines.
According to Norris, jury selection and trials in Athens will occur at the Classic Center, where space will be partly paid for by the county. In Oconee County, he said, jury selection will occur at the Civic Center and trials will be held in large courtrooms in the county courthouse, at no cost to taxpayers.
Social distancing will be mandatory, as will be the wearing of masks and temperature screening, according to the judge.
“The most important issue is we have not had a trial in a year and we need jurors,” Norris said. “Defendants, victims and litigants in civil cases need their day in court.”