Georgia courts may take 2 or 3 years to reduce trial backlog

Georgia’s outgoing chief justice says it may take two or three years for courts to dig out from a backlog of jury trials and the backlog may get worse before it gets better.

Chief Justice Harold Melton made the remarks Tuesday in his annual "State of the Judiciary" address to the Georgia General Assembly, calling on lawmakers to pass a bill that would suspend state law on speedy trials through June 2023.

"It could take up to one — and possibly three — years for us to dig out of this backlog," Melton said. "Not only will we have significantly more cases, but the process of moving them through the system at least initially will go more slowly due to all the safety protocols."

Melton said some courthouses are constrained because they have few courtrooms large enough to space out jurors. He said courts might be able to handle one-third as many cases as normal right away and the backlog is likely to grow.

Speedy trial deadlines are suspended for now under the state judicial emergency, which will have to end soon after Gov. Brian Kemp’s public health emergency order expires. Melton warned that without Senate Bill 163, judges could later be forced to acquit thousands of accused criminals statewide.

"We realize the burden of having defendants waiting longer for trial while being held in jail," Melton said. "But we need to have a system that actually determines whether people who have been charged and indicted with a crime are guilty or innocent before allowing them to walk free."

The measure doesn’t affect a defendant’s right to petition for a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution.

Melton last week declared that jury trials could resume as long as adequate precautions against the spread of the coronavirus are in place. Some counties have begun summoning jurors.

Melton suspended jury trials when he first declared a statewide judicial emergency nearly a year ago, on March 14, 2020. He lifted that suspension in October but reinstated it Dec. 23.

Melton is stepping down July 1. The other justices met last week and elected Presiding Justice David Nahmias as the next chief justice. A chief justice serves one four-year term leading the court.

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