Chief and Presiding Justice Host Three Virtual Town Halls for Judges, Clerks

by Cheryl Karounos

During the April 24 teleconference meeting of the Judicial Council, Chief Justice Melton made an offer to hold a virtual town hall meeting with any of the member councils that would be interested. Three councils took him up on that offer. On May 5, Chief Justice Melton and Presiding Justice Nahmias held back to back Zoom town halls with the Municipal and State Court judges. On May 7, they met with the Superior Court Clerks. These town halls offered the judges and clerks an opportunity to hear directly from the Chief and Presiding Justice about the latest order, ask questions, make comments, and gain a better understanding of how our judiciary is navigating the COVID-19 crisis.

Judge Bubba Samuels, President of the Council of Municipal Court Judges, welcomed the justices to their town hall that had 63 people virtually congregated, “We are very excited to bring this program to you as the courts find ways to function in this new world we have found ourselves in.” Judge Samuels thanked the Chief and Presiding Justices for their “thoughtful leadership during this crisis.”

The Chief expressed his gratitude to the Municipal Court Judges in his opening remarks, “These meetings will be a time for me to share, but I want you to see this as a time for me to hear, for us to hear. It will be important that we hear from you…about what you think needs to be done and what questions and concerns you have as we climb out of this crisis together.”

Judge McClelland open the State Court Judges’ town hall greeting the 92 participants and saying, “We as the Council wish to express appreciation to the Chief Justice on his leadership during this time of danger to public health from the COVID-19 pandemic. The judiciary is very fortunate to have the right person at the right place at the right time during this historic event. We can’t thank the Chief Justice and Presiding Justice enough for taking time out of their valuable day to be with us and answer our questions.”

During all three town halls, Chief Justice Melton stated, “If you would have asked me going into this crisis if the Georgia judiciary was ready, I would have been concerned about our system’s ability to pivot. Even though I was previously impressed with our judiciary, I was not impressed enough.” Chief Justice Melton told the judges they have been absolutely remarkable, “[You] have worked together as such a cohesive unit you wouldn’t realize that we are not a unified system.”

“Even though I was previously impressed with our judiciary, I was not impressed enough.”
-Chief Justice Melton

The Chief reviewed the upcoming second extension order and solicited comments, questions, and input from the judges and clerks. He re-emphasized the use of video conference for proceedings wherever possible. “We have been amending the rules for the various classes of court to open up video conferencing more and more,” he said. “We are urging courts to move forward wherever you can in order to alleviate the backlogs that are building.”

Mike Holiman, Executive Director of Council of Superior Court Clerks, opened their meeting by saying to the 68 people attending, “Chief Justice Melton has been holding weekly Judicial Council emergency meetings, but we appreciate the opportunity to hear directly from him. Thank you for including the clerks and keeping us in the loop.”

Executive Director of the Council of Superior Court Clerks Mike Holiman attending the Court Clerks Town Hall

The Chief praised the clerks, “You interact with the public face to face and daily. This has been a scary time. I’ve had a couple of calls from clerks when the virus had hit their staff. I heard the fear in your voices and I heard the temptations to shut down, but you figured out a way to stay open. You have held the course when it wasn’t easy to do so. Thank you.”

To the judges and clerks alike, Chief Justice Melton shared Justice Blackwell’s sentiment, “We have to be more careful…because we are compelling people to show up [to court], so there is an extra burden that goes with that. We want to ensure we have strict compliance with local, state, and federal health guidelines.”

“We get through this by working together, by having open communication. I value this partnership with the clerks. Our court system will never be the same. The ability to let go of the past and grab hold of the future will be critical.”

The current COVID-19 crisis is not the Chief’s first experience contemplating what to do in a pandemic. Around 12 years ago, then-Chief Justice Sears asked him to chair a committee on responding to a pandemic. “In my view,” he said, “that was akin to asking me to lead a task force on the sky falling.” The Chief said he recently texted Justice Sears thanking her for her foresight that gave us a platform for the current situation. “We had model orders and rules regarding technology we could draw from,” the Chief explained, “As a result, Georgia is in a better situation than many states going into this crisis.”

In response to the many thanks Chief Justice Melton received, he replied, “I have to thank my court. If you knew how much thought they’ve put into these questions – even things that the bench book did not anticipate. Presiding Justice Nahmias and the rest of my colleagues have been invaluable. We have got so many strong people at the helm across our legal community.” At each town hall, the Chief expressed his pride in the efforts across the state, “I’m really proud we’ve kept our courts open. We get calls from the media all the time asking when will the courts open and our response is: we never closed.”