by Robert Aycock, Governmental and Trial Court Liaison at the Administrative Office of the Courts
On March 2, 2020, the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in Georgia. As cases rapidly increased, it became apparent that the virus would present the state and its people with an array of difficult and unique challenges. As a vital aspect of society, courts of every level were forced to rise to meet the challenges and find ways to ensure that the administration of justice could be maintained in this crisis. One class of courts, the magistrate courts, are sometimes called the “people’s court” as they are often the public’s first point of contact with the judicial branch. These county-level courts handle a variety of issues including bond hearings, warrants, dispossessory proceedings, and small claim civil cases. The following article is based on interviews with the Chief Magistrate Judges of Camden, Cobb, and Harris Counties.
Like nearly every other part of society, the court system had to react to the pandemic swiftly. To protect public health, the judicial system was forced to postpone many cases and focus on its most essential services. Many of these essential services such as bond hearings are handled by magistrate courts. Because of this, magistrate judges had to find ways to continue operating throughout the pandemic. Pre-existing technology proved immensely helpful to these efforts. All three of the interviewed courts already had some form of virtual hearing technology in place for either warrant applications, bond hearings, or first appearances. These tools proved invaluable in adapting to public health concerns, especially as the virus forced staff to fundamentally alter their working arrangements. At various times during the pandemic, both Camden and Harris County were forced to close their doors to the public either because of general safety concerns or due to outbreaks within the courts themselves. Cobb County was able to stay open 24/7 but rotated staff to ensure that social distancing could be maintained in court offices. Despite the stresses of the situation, at no point during the pandemic did any of the courts fail to find some way to continue operating in some form or another. Services may have been limited, and staff may have had to change how they did their jobs, but the courts never shut down and continued to serve the public.
A Continuing Crisis
During the early stages of the pandemic, many assumed that it would be a short-term event and that actives would return to normal sooner than later. However, as the weeks wore on and the virus persisted, judges and other court personnel realized that substantial and sustained changes would be necessary. To start, internal practices had to be modified. Judge Jennifer Lewis of Camden County stated that she had a glass barrier installed on the front clerk desk and also began to run the office on a rotating skeleton crew. In regard to court proceedings, all three counties have worked to increase the use of virtual hearings but have run into an array of issues. The most common problem experienced with virtual hearings are connection issues. Judge Jennifer Webb of Harris County spoke to one instance where a litigant took the hearing videoconference in their car as they attempted to find a suitable mobile connection.
Beyond connectivity, certain case types are not suitable for virtual hearings, and not all litigants wish to argue their case over the internet. Because of this, the courts had to find a way to offer in-person hearings while safeguarding the health of both the court personal and members of the public. This focus on public health is even more imperative in courts as they can compel people to be present. All of the interviewed counties mandate that all visitors wear a mask or face covering. While such mandates have proven to be controversial, all three Chief Magistrates stated that visitors largely comply with the mandate without major incident. This fact was largely attributed to effective and consistent communication regarding the mandate and that it was for the health of everyone including visitors. On top of the requiring facial coverings, the courts took various additional measures. Camden county spoke to sanitization efforts such as using disposable seat and table covers throughout the courthouse, and Judge Brendan Murphy of Cobb County explained how his court had replaced their traditional case calendar with a schedule that included a larger number of calendars that each have shorter case dockets.
Towards the New Normal
It is still too early to tell how long the pandemic will continue, but even when it subsides and society can return to something closer to normal, the changes brought about by COVID-19 will likely endure. All three Chief Magistrates stated that they hoped to continue using the technology they employed to improve their public service during the pandemic. A decrease in county budgets may complicate this effort for some courts, but it can be hoped that the COVID-19 crisis can lead to some sustained improvements across the judicial branch.
Regardless of how long the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, one day it will end, and the world will have the opportunity to look back and examine one of the most impactful events in recent history. When this happens it is, to quote Judge Murphy, “Imperative that we include court staff when we celebrate essential workers; they kept the wheels of justice turning.”