What can attorneys count on when Georgia lawsuits resume?  It is determined by

Plexiglass in one courthouse, but not another. In some cases the masks are kept on all the time, while in others there may be masks on, except perhaps during jury screening.

These are just two examples of the differences lawyers might face in different courtrooms as jury retrial plans gain momentum in Georgia and some circles are envisaged in late March or early April.

With a limited mandate covering all state courts, each district used the discretion of the Georgia Supreme Court, Harold Melton, to develop “detailed and locally tailored” reopening plans.

Judge Eric Wayne Norris, Western Circuit Superior Court, Athens, Georgia.

“The judiciary can’t wait forever,” said presiding judge Eric Norris of the Western Judicial Circuit, which includes Clarke and Oconee counties. “We need to be in a place where we can bring litigants to court and juries can hear their cases and make decisions because we know how important that is.”

Norris said lawyers can expect to review juries and try cases in new, larger locations. His county has moved its procedures to the Classic Center in Clarke County and the Jury Assembly to the Civic Center in Oconee County to better meet CDC guidelines.

The large rooms can hold about 60 people with social distancing, said Norris of the Classic Center. “The halls are big and wide, and they allow us to be modular so that once we can make a jury selection, we can move from two ballrooms to just one and still have a courtroom environment that is still socially distant is. “.”

“Bench Conferences … Are Gone”: Judge Practice for the Return of Jury Trials in Georgia

Limited juror interaction

The need for social distancing has placed nationwide restrictions on how trial attorneys can interact with juries.

What can attorneys count on when Georgia lawsuits resume?  It is determined by Judge Penny Freesemann, Chatham County Superior Court. (Courtesy photo)

“I want to give the attorneys a chance to move, but I think you won’t see what you’ve seen in the past where the attorney comes on the stand and is really close to them,” Norris said. “That will not happen.”

On the Eastern Judicial Circuit, presiding judge Penny Hass Freesemann said lawyers also expect less freedom to move around the courtroom or approach the bank.

Much like its Eastern counterpart, Chief Justice Richard Cowart said lawyers were required to speak into a microphone when trying cases in the Southern Judicial Circuit, but not all courtrooms were separated from the jury by plexiglass.

“We’ll have them pretty much distributed,” said Cowart.

There were no Plexiglas partitions at all in the establishment of the Western Judicial Circuit.

“There is no plexiglass partition right now because the jurors will be 6 feet apart and masks will be required,” said Norris.

“I can’t see your face”

While trial attorneys will unanimously note general COVID-19 safeguards, including temperature checks at court entry points, something less obvious is: jury pools can include a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated jurors.

“That wasn’t a requirement the Supreme Court made on us,” Norris said of the jury’s non-mandatory vaccination. “We try to use common sense to ask people when they come: ‘Have you had a test, have you tested positive, have you been with someone who has been exposed in the last 14 days?'”

Once inside the Georgia courthouse, attorneys may also find that review procedures for these juries can vary widely.

Judge Richard Cowart, Superior Courts, Southern Circuit. Judge Richard Cowart, Superior Courts, Southern Circuit. (Courtesy photo)

“We got some lawyers to say, ‘Well, I can’t vote for a jury if I can’t see their face,'” Cowart said. “We’ve talked about if you want to interview a specific juror on a specific topic that you think is critical to the jury selection process, we may be able to tell the juror that they can remove their mask while they are individual questioned and then put back on just to clarify these few questions. “

Another possible difference: the approach of the dishes to the preparation.

The Eastern Judicial Circuit was holding a trial jury trial before resuming on April 5, and a test run was pending at the Western Circuit before returning on March 22.

But the Southern Judicial Circuit decided on a different strategy.

“Our five judges, we talk a lot,” said Cowart. “We haven’t actually planned any practice runs, except that we meet with the relevant committee, especially the lawyers and judges involved, in advance and say, ‘All right. This is how we plan this. Does anyone have any questions or problems with it? ‘”

“The thing we fear”

After the successful resumption of the grand jury trials last December, Cowart hoped the jury trials would run just as smoothly and did not mention any foreseeable challenges with jury involvement.

“It was really surprising that people weren’t really reluctant to come to the grand jury,” he said. “People have come in and are ready to be on the grand jury.

Litigation attorneys may not find the same willingness among jurors in other parts of the state, as perceptions of the pandemic vary widely.

“There may be a discomfort with people who haven’t gone anywhere for a year, and now we’re asking them to come to the courthouse,” Freesemann said. “That is what we fear because we need everyone to participate.”

Norris agreed and has taken the additional step of creating a public notice calling on the jury to perform their civil duty.

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“We need a diverse group of people to show up,” said Norris. “If someone is in the defense chair, or if you are in a civil case and would look into the crowd, you would like to see people like you in the crowd. And that is very important. “

With the return to jury trials happening across the state, lawyers are urged to prepare, both digitizing their evidence and remembering to pack their patience.

Cowart said, “We just have to be prepared that it will take longer and be a more complex process than we’re used to until this is all over.”

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