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Court officials preparing — and hoping — for return to normal trial schedule as pandemic backlog grows
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A courtroom in Hall County Superior Court, pictured in September 2020. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hall County court officials have summoned 150 jurors for a potential trial week March 10, hoping they can soon return to a regular schedule and normal court business.

The court has created a short list of cases to be called for trial March 10, all of which are drug cases ranging from possession of synthetic cannabinoids to trafficking methamphetamine.

As a caveat, Hall County court administrator Jason Stephenson said “any trial is contingent upon (Georgia Supreme Court Chief) Justice (Harold D.) Melton lifting the statewide suspension on jury trials in his next emergency order on March 9.” Melton has repeatedly extended the emergency order delaying trials amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Judge Oliver will then make a final determination in consultation with other judicial and health officials based on local virus conditions,” Stephenson said.

Only one case will be heard that week.

In the Hall County Jail, there are 338 defendants awaiting trial on felony charges.

Hall County Superior Court caseload by the numbers

Total case filings:

2019: 6,248

2020: 3,450


Total cases completed:

2019: 6,374

2020: 3,840


Criminal filings (by indictment or accusation):

2019: 3,676

2020: 1,293


Decisions in criminal cases:

2019: 3,782

2020: 1,872


Domestic filings:

2019: 2,064

2020: 1,703


Decisions in domestic filings:

2019: 2,133

2020: 1,625

2020 numbers are preliminary and unofficial until submitted to Georgia's Administrative Office of the Courts in March

“Without jurors here in the building and having jury trials, a lot of those criminal cases simply don’t close,” Stephenson said. “And even though well over 90% of criminal cases end up resolving by plea, the pressure on that plea comes from jury trials that are looming.”

Stephenson said 15 of the 150 summoned jurors have been granted COVID-related excuses out of jury duty. The jury division vets each request before it is passed up to the judge’s office, who may have a hearing over the phone or videoconferencing to determine whether to grant the request.

If the March 10 trial happens, it will be three days before the anniversary of the courts halting trials. 

In 2019, the Hall County Superior Court had 84 trials on the calendars. In 2020, there were only six trials before the March 13, 2020, order declaring a judicial emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“There’s no one indicator that’s going to tell you what the backlog is,” Stephenson said. “That’s why we’ve kind of looked and given the judges a picture of lots of different indicators.”

Hall County Superior Court completed 1,900 fewer cases in 2020 compared to 2019. There were also 2,400 fewer criminal filings, either by grand jury indictment or the district attorney filing a formal accusation, in 2020 compared to 2019.

“At the state level, there are legislators and some debate happening in the Georgia legislature about how long it’s going to take to dig out of that backlog,” Stephenson said. “There have been some numbers thrown out: two years, three years. We don’t have a completely accurate picture of what the backlog is because there are a number of unindicted cases and cases that just aren’t in our system yet, but we certainly expect a caseload resurgence once jury trials resume.”

Grand jury sessions are also set to resume Wednesday, March 3.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said there were 344 cases ready for presentation to a grand jury.

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