Courts behind due to pandemic

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Catching up on more than two months worth of cases and dealing with a potential budget cut will create challenges when the statewide judicial emergency is lifted on June 12, local court officials say.

Hart County Clerk of Court Frankie Gray recently told The Sun when the statewide judicial emergency order is lifted, assuming it’s not extended, the local courts will go back to the original schedule that was drafted in December.

“It’ll be business as usual,” Gray said. “We’ve been doing court twice a month for emergency bond hearings and (temporary protective orders), come June 12 it’ll be normal.”

Gray said he anticipates a backlog of cases that have been filed and are waiting for a service to be performed against the defendant.

“We got lucky,” Gray said. “A lot of the civil papers, we didn’t really have that many.”

Still, Gray said they lost a valuable two months due to the pandemic.

“We had juries that were coming up. We had criminal weeks that we could’ve disposed of some cases that are now still sitting there,” Gray said. “The biggest challenge I see as a clerk is we’re two months behind.”

District attorney Parks White has not yet indicated whether or not he will reconvene a grand jury before the regular grand jury assembles in August, Gray said.

Throughout the judicial emergency, no criminal cases were resolved in Hart County, Gray said.

Video calls for hearings were already being used before the pandemic, but Gray said he credits White for speeding up the process and setting up the system.

“First couple of tries we had some kinks and bugs to work out, but we got them worked out and it’s been working great,” Gray said.

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Malcom said a potential budget cut to the courts could be a challenge as they try to catch up on backlogged cases.

“We are facing a large, large backlog,” Malcom said. “When we’re able to go forward it’s going to be a lot of work to do.”

Like other state-funded agencies, the court system could be facing a 14 percent budget when state legislature resumes session on June 15, which could complicate things further for the local courts attempting to catch up on cases.

“One of the things that would affect our ability, if our staff and we are required to take furlough days, we’re going to have less people to do the work,” Malcom said.

Criminal cases where defendants have been in jail awaiting trial will take priority, Malcom said.

Safety protocols will be taken as the courts return to business as usual, Malcom said, and could pose an added challenge. He said they’ll have to see when trial juries will be allowed in the court room again and how the court will provide adequate spacing.

To help provide more spacing and distance in the court room, Malcom said they have scheduled bench matters with the times spaced out from one another.

“The directive for anybody coming in now or then, if you’ve exhibited any of the symptoms, if you’ve been exposed to anyone who has tested positive (for COVID-19), if you’re running a fever, certainly you don’t come,” Malcom said.

The video conference capabilities have been a good tool and have saved a lot of money by cutting down on transportation costs, Malcom said. He said using video they are able to get through a large number of cases with a small number of people in the court room. Malcom said it has, and will continue to, save thousands of dollars.

“It’s certainly more cost effective and less security risk,” Malcom said.