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With a backlog of hundreds of cases, juries may soon resume in Clarke and Oconee

Western Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Eric Norris

By Joe Johnson

Grand jury proceedings could resume as early as November in Athens-Clarke and Oconee Counties, and trials could resume in January, according to Western Judicicial Circuit Chief Judge Eric Norris.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harld Melton in March issued an emergency order that suspended all but the most essential courthouse functions.

After six extensions of the order, Melton this month issued a seventh order that stated grand juries and trials can resume.

Remote judicial proceedings will continue, but Melton's order allows the chief judge of each judicial circuit in Georgia to resume grand juries and trials at their discretion.

Norris, who is chief judge for the circuit that includes Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties, said that grand juries in the circuit could resume in late November or early December.

There are nearly 300 cases awaiting grand jury presentments, he said. Many more cases have been awaiting trial.

Jury trials could resume in January, Norris said.

A committee of various court stakeholders is in the process of deciding how to safely re-start the vital court procedures.

“We are evaluating the pros and cons of using the courthouse or temporarily designating an alternate location that would provide larger space,” Norris said. “We hope to have a decision regarding location within the next several weeks.”

Though tentative start dates for grand juries and jury trials have been discussed by committee member, Norris said, “As with everything during this time flexibility is key, so no hard dates yet.

“The Supreme Court has allowed for jury and grand jury summons to go forward once we have formulated our re-opening plan,” he said. “My main focus is providing the public with a safe, clear and transparent plan that ensures the safety of all and balances the needs of criminal and civil litigants that need jury trials.”

Brian Patterson, acting district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit, said although a definitive timeline had yet to be established, “this process is moving forward with all deliberate speed.”

 He said, “The district attorney’s office is ready, willing, and able to move forward once a plan has been finalized and agreed to by all concerned.  We have been engaged in an ongoing process to prioritize cases for grand jury proceedings and trial, including cases in which a person is being held in custody and serious violent felonies.  The presiding judge assigned to a case will ultimately decide which cases will be placed on a future trial calendar and the order in which the cases will be tried.”

Norris said that each county has the legal ability to designate locations other than the courthouse for conducting trials.

"A thought is that use of a large local venue would allow for appropriate social distancing during voir dire and for the conduct of trials." he said. "Something that is on the forefront for everyone is the concept of compelling attendance for grand jury and trials.  We understand the absolute and critical need to ensure everyone’s safety during this time whether trials and grand jury conduct business or not. 

However, the judge said, "We also recognize that there are many people who need resolution to their legal issues -- criminal and civil -- and that time does not serve justice well.  With all that said, we do have discussions at least monthly between all classes of courts and for the Superior Court Judges, we talk regularly about the next steps.  We are attempting to be proactive in planning, but also considering implementation once we can resume limited or full operations."

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