Georgia chief justice says grand juries can resume meeting

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia state court judges may begin calling grand juries to consider indictments, as courts take another step toward resuming trials suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice Harold Melton said.

The head of the state’s judicial system said judges should consult with district attorneys and move forward “as local conditions allow.” Melton says courts should follow existing guidance on safety and that advice on remote grand jury proceedings would be issued soon.

Melton also told each county to develop rules on how to resume trials, saying he was likely to authorize trials to resume in October, if local judges decide that is safe. Counties have to file their plans with the state Administrative Office of Courts before jury trials resume.

Because it takes a month or longer to summon grand jurors and trial jurors, Melton said that means grand juries won’t begin meeting until October at the earliest and in-person trials won’t resume until November.

“This broad prohibition cannot continue, even if the pandemic continues, because our judicial system, and the criminal justice system in particular, must have some capacity to resolve cases by indictment and trial,” Melton wrote in an order filed Thursday.

The court system is encouraging courts to space out grand jurors and consider larger rooms — even spaces outside courthouses if necessary.

Meanwhile, Melton said judges should continue to hold hearings remotely as much as possible, and he continued to discourage calendar calls, where many litigants crowd into a courtroom for the judge to inquire about the status of their cases.

In July, Melton reinstated deadlines for litigants to file papers, seeking to begin moving cases forward.

The new order keeps a number of deadlines suspended, including a defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

In guidance for resuming grand juries, the court system wrote that thousands of cases are piled up awaiting indictments.

Several judges have died after being infected with the coronavirus.