COVID-19 Requirements for Municipal Courts
Alison Cline Earles, Senior Associate General Counsel
Posted on July 17, 2020
Municipal Courts Must Comply with Special Rules Set Forth in Judicial Emergency Orders during the Pandemic
Municipal courts must follow rules included in Judicial Emergency Orders issued by the Supreme Court of Georgia. The Council of Municipal Court Judges has been in communication with municipal court judges and with the statewide Judicial COVID-19 Task Force throughout the pandemic. The Council’s website has a COVID-19 section that includes all rules that apply to municipal courts during the pandemic as well as many resources to help municipal courts operate during the pandemic.
Municipal Courts May Not Return to Regular Face-to-Face Business Until Their Operational Guidelines Meet Requirements of the Fourth Judicial Emergency Order
The Fourth Judicial Emergency Order effective July 12, 2020 states that all courts “should continue to use and increase the use of technology to conduct remote judicial proceedings . . . unless required by law to be in person or unless it is not practicable for technical or other reasons for persons participating in the proceeding to participate remotely.” Moreover, the Fourth Judicial Emergency Order prohibits municipal courts from compelling in-person appearance at a court proceeding unless the court proceeding and the court facility at which it is held are in compliance with the Order. That means courts may not hold the proceedings in-person until they have implemented operational guidelines that comply with current public health recommendations. Finally, municipal courts must submit the operational guidelines to the Administrative Office of the Courts using this form.
Reopening Requirements for Municipal Courts Differ from Governor Kemp’s Executive Orders, and Cities Are Expressly Permitted to Require Face Coverings As Needed to Comply with Judicial Emergency Orders
The reopening rules for courts address issues that are specific to courts, such as mandated appearance of individuals and constitutional rights. Importantly, courts are required to develop and follow operational guidelines that comply with current public health recommendations. For example, as of the date of this publication, municipal courts must perform screenings of everyone entering the court facility (symptom checks, questions about close contacts, and, if possible, temperature checks), must require face coverings, must ensure social distancing at all times, must require isolation and quarantining of certain individuals, and must ensure notification of the Department of Public Health and ensure notification of members of the public in certain situations. Governor Kemp’s Executive Order does not impose mandates like this for city buildings and city business. The July 15, 2020 Executive Order expressly states that city rules requiring face coverings pursuant to Judicial Emergency Orders are not suspended.
City Leaders Should Check to See If the Municipal Court Has Submitted Compliant Operational Guidelines to the Administrative Office of the Courts
To see if any operational guidelines have been submitted, visit the COVID-19 Court Operating Guidelines database in which you can search by county. Note that guidelines filed before the Fourth Judicial Emergency Order effective date (July 12, 2020) must be updated and re-submitted no later than July 22 if they do not meet the minimum requirements. To ensure guidelines are compliant in design and implementation, they should be developed in coordination with the city guidelines after consultation with the city attorney, an employment lawyer (for all guidelines related to staff,) and the municipal court judge.
City Leaders Can Support Compliance by the Municipal Court by Working Closely with the Municipal Court and the City Attorney
City leaders can help by working closely with the municipal court and city attorney to identify any additional resources that may be required to expand remote judicial proceedings wherever permitted by law, and to ensure that operational guidelines for in-person proceedings and general municipal court operations comply with the requirements of the Fourth Judicial Emergency Order. Cities with municipal courts may choose to revise their current operational guidelines and policies regarding notifying the public and handling isolation and quarantine requirements for staff to comply with the stricter municipal court requirements.
The Reopening Rules Apply to Small Municipal Courts That Meet Infrequently and in One Room of a City Building
The rules apply to “court facilities,” all court personnel (including a city clerk who also serves as municipal court clerk) and court business (including payments, scheduling, as well as hearings.) The Fourth Judicial Emergency Order states several times that is essential for courts to coordinate with those with whom they share a building to ensure that the rules are followed.
Municipal Courts Must Follow a Specific Template When Developing Operational Guidelines
All courts are required to use the Georgia Court Reopening Guide as the template for their operational guidelines. Municipal courts may wish to replace the section on jury trials with a statement that the court does not hold jury trials.
To Comply with the Fourth Judicial Emergency Order, Municipal Courts Must Add Two Provisions That Are Not Addressed in the Template
The Fourth Judicial Emergency Order contains the following new requirements that are not addressed in the Georgia Courts Reopening Guide. Presumably, a court could simply add these statements from the Order to the operational guidelines based on the template. However, it is essential to review these obligations with the city attorney and an employment lawyer to ensure that actual implementation complies with employment laws. Note: the Order does not define “court facility.”
- “With regard to everyone who works in a court facility, the operating guidelines shall require isolation of any person with known or suspected COVID-19 and quarantine of any person with COVID-19 exposure likely to result in infection, in accordance with the DPH Seventh Amended Administrative Order for Public Health Control Measures.”
- “When there is reason to believe that anyone who works or has visited a court facility has been exposed to COVID-19, DPH or the local health department shall be notified and notification of persons who may have been exposed shall occur as directed by DPH or the local health department.”