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In plea for funds, Augusta judge says trial backlog could last years

(WHSV)
Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 11:24 AM EST
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ATLANTA - An Augusta-based judge told Georgia lawmakers it could take up to three years for the state to dig out of a backlog of jury trials delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Wade Padgett, president of the Council of Superior Court Judges, was among the judges addressing state lawmakers during budget hearings Wednesday.

Getting out from under the backlog will keep the court system busy, and Padgett was there with Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton to ask lawmakers for more money.

Melton has been limiting in-person court proceedings through a series of emergency orders. For a time last year when COVID-19 seemed to be subsiding, he allowed jury trials to resume with safety precautions in place.

But Padgett told lawmakers even that was difficult.

During that time, the James Brown Arena was Augusta’s makeshift jury selection site — chosen because it was big enough to allow social distancing. Standard courtroom seating for juries also wasn’t possible.

Melton says he’s eager to resume jury trials when the circumstances allow.

Although Melton told lawmakers clearing the backlog could take a year or two, Padgett’s estimate was less optimistic, at three years.

One thing that could affect funding is a bill under consideration that would split off Columbia County into a separate court system from Augusta’s. Right now, Columbia, Richmond and Burke counties share a circuit.

Resigned that the General Assembly will create a new circuit for Columbia County, Augusta commissioners voted to support the move, under the condition that the remaining two-county circuit have five judges.

Columbia County Commission Chairman Doug Duncan says the bill appears likely to pass.

The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 14 but there has been no movement on it since then.

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