A monitor outside the Senate Chamber at the Capitol showing initial passage of SB 163 by the Georgia Senate.
by Cheryl Karounos – Governmental Affairs Liaison
The pandemic and resulting Statewide Judicial Emergency Order changed a lot of plans in the last year and the Judicial Council’s legislative priorities were no exception. The initiatives that had been planned for this session were necessarily postponed in favor of proposals that would help ease the mounting backlog resulting from the suspension of jury trials and to accommodate future social distancing requirements.
Three potential bills came out of the Judicial COVID-19 Task Force led by Justice Shawn Ellen LaGrua and Judge Russ McClelland. The Task Force spent months working through the unique challenges of keeping judges, courthouse staff and the public safe, how to handle virtual proceedings, and what measures would help ease the burden on the courts when the Emergency was lifted. The Task Force benefits from the work of judge-members from all levels of court, as well as important stakeholders.
The Task Force recommendations were supported by the Judicial Council and passed as part of House Bill 635 carried by Rep. Rob Leverett in the House and Sen. Brian Strickland in the Senate. HB 635 allows for bench trials in lieu of jury trials with the waiver of the defendant and over the objection of the prosecution; expanded use of accusations by a prosecutor instead of requiring a grand jury indictment (excluding seven deadlies charges); and the ability for superior and state courts to contract with third party facilities to use as an alternative location for holding court that allows for social distancing. HB 635 also makes explicit that judges of all classes of court now have jurisdiction when they are operating remotely. The bench trials and accusations provisions will sunset on June 30, 2022.
While the passage of HB 635 was important, the most critical piece of Judicial Council legislation was Senate Bill 163 allowing for the continued tolling of statutory speedy trial requirements by superior and state courts on a county-by-county basis after the Judicial Emergency is lifted. The bill in no way relieves the State or courts from complying with constitutional speedy trial obligations. Darron Enns, JC/AOC Policy Counsel, was the principal drafter of SB 163 and deftly addressed questions, both in committee and offline, as the subject matter expert on the bill. Again, we called on the help of Sen. Brian Strickland, who skillfully carried SB 163 through to passage in the Senate. Rep. Stan Gunter successfully shepherded it through the House and it ultimately passed on Day 39 of session.
Tracy Mason, who leads the JC/AOC legislative team, was very clear about the importance of this bill, “While all of these bills were pursued to address pandemic-created issues, SB 163 was the top priority this session. Chief Justice Melton stressed its importance in his State of the Judiciary address, so the legislators knew it was very critical to the courts.”
Presiding Justice Nahmias, Chair of the Judicial Council Standing Committee on Legislation, explained the need for the legislation, “With jury trials suspended since the start of the pandemic, the growing backlog would have created a crisis where the courts could not comply with statutory speedy trial demands filed en masse, requiring the release of some criminal defendants without trial. SB 163 has a sunset of June 30, 2023 giving the courts a two-year window to work their way out of the backlog.”
As Presiding Justice Nahmias noted at the April 23 Judicial Council meeting, “It was a very successful session in terms of the legislative items we had to get through. A large part of that success is due to the three lawyer-legislators who carried these bills. In particular, we put a lot of weight on Chairman Strickland with these two bills and he carried it graciously and effectively.”
Senate Judiciary Chair Brian Strickland also addressed the Judicial Council at the April General Session, “I met with the Presiding Justice early in the session and he made it clear why SB 163 was a bill we had to get passed.” Strickland added, “This year at the Capitol was especially challenging due to Covid protocols and the time constraints of a fast-moving session. It was no easy feat, but Rep. Leverett’s and Rep. Gunter’s efforts on the House side were imperative in getting these bills passed.”
A special thank you goes out to Judges Amero, Brasher, Gosselin, Tailor, Kell, Padgett, and Guy, all of whom testified, and some of whom spent a lot of time at the Capitol contributing to the legislative team effort.