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Problems with Courts reopening in Georgia

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton warned state judges Monday that they could face judicial discipline if they continue to ignore COVID-19 health guidelines.

Melton plans to extend an emergency order this week, and this time he plans to include “stronger, more mandatory language” about the need to follow health directives, he said.

Melton has heard of several practices that raised concerns. They include:

• Some courts have reinstated mass calendar calls.

• Some courthouse staff members are not quarantining after they are exposed to or possibly ill with the coronavirus.

• Some court workers taking visitors’ temperatures are not wearing face masks.

• Some judges are requiring in-person appearances by lawyers who fear complications if they acquire COVID-19.

Melton said he intends to issue a new emergency order this week. The current judicial emergency expires Sunday, and Melton said a fourth order extending the current emergency until Aug. 11 will likely include “stronger, more mandatory language” about following public health directives intended to stem the virus’ spread.

Melton said the new order will address whether judges who require attendance at hearings when their courthouses or courtroom are not in compliance with state and local public health and CDC guidelines may be found to have committed an ethical violation. Chuck Boring, executive director of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which polices the judiciary, has already called several judges who failed to follow Melton’s emergency orders, the chief justice said.

Melton said his new order will “make clear that the provisions of the declared [judicial] emergency are, in fact, mandatory” and will clarify that the JQC has jurisdiction to investigate judges who have ignored his emergency declarations.

“We’re not looking to go after judges,” the chief justice said. But, he added, “Where clear guidelines are not being followed, that’s something that will need to be addressed in a very serious manner.”

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