courts close

A judicial emergency has been re-instated for the Waycross Judicial Circuit due to a recent spike of COVID-19 (coronavirus).

Chief Circuit Judge Dwayne Gillis declared a judicial emergency last week. The move effectively suspends all but the most essential judicial proceedings.

The initial emergency was declared in March as coronavirus cases first began to spread in the area. The moratorium on grand jury proceedings was lifted in September and an additional revision in October allowed local courts to begin preparing for the resumption of legal proceedings including jury trials as soon as it was deemed safe to do so.

A recent surge in the number of cases, plus two deaths, Brantley County Probate Judge Karen Batten and district attorney’s office secretary Victoria Smith many infections and exposures to the virus among court personnel in the six county circuit, led Gillis to declare the judicial emergency again.

Judge Gillis noted evidence of a surge stemming from family and other large gatherings at Thanksgiving and predictions by local health care officials of another surge following Christmas holiday gatherings.

“The six county circuit, along with the state and nation, is experiencing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases ... accordingly, all jury trials in the Waycross Judicial Circuit are hereby suspended until further notice ... Furthermore, all in-person court proceedings are hereby limited to essential services which protect health, safety and liberty of individuals,” Judge Gillis wrote in his order.

Two juries were selected earlier in December in the circuit. Due to exposure to the virus in the district attorney’s office, one ended in a mistrial and the second case was continued.

Gillis also noted four of the six counties in the circuit are currently experiencing five percent or greater increases of COVID-19 cases from week to week as determined by the Georgia Department of Public Health (GDPH).

Essential services include:

•  cases where an immediate liberty or safety concern is present requiring the attention of the Courts as soon as the court is available;

• criminal court search warrants, arrest warrants, initial appearances and bond reviews;

• domestic abuse cases, temporary protective orders and restraining orders;

• juvenile court delinquency detention hearings and emergency removal matters; and

• mental health commitment hearings.

• domestic cases which may require immediate ex parte action to protect life, liberty, health, safety, property of persons and in particular, the needs of children and accompanying emergency hearings;

• dispossessory and eviction matters which involve egregious matters as determined by our magistrate judges; and

• preliminary hearings which affect liberty interest of defendants.

All essential court hearings will be held at the discretion of the judges of the circuit in compliance with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and GDPH guidelines.

Gillis did note under the emergency that meetings of Grand Juries may proceed as long as the District Attorney and grand jury foreperson can maintain social distancing and other public safety measures. This will allow this phase of criminal cases to proceed.

Video conferencing is also allowed and is encouraged for safety reasons.