When Habersham County Chief Magistrate Judge Gerald Johnson first stepped into his courtroom at the new county courthouse and saw the large flatscreen TV on the wall, he decided to put it to good use. The then newly-appointed judge purchased a $30 computer camera and, with the help of the county’s IT department and Skype started holding inmates’ first appearance hearings virtually.
“The prisoners can see me. I can see them. They can hear me. It is so much better than having the jail staff have to worry about bringing the inmates from the jail to the courthouse,” he said at the time.
That was six years ago. Today, Judge Johnson’s forward-thinking move to incorporate technology into his rural Georgia courtroom has given him an edge amid a pandemic no one back then saw coming.
“My intentions are to have the first in-person virtual hearing,” he says.
Johnson and fellow Magistrate Judge Amy Thomas will resume hearings on June 23 using a hybrid approach that will allow litigants to join them from both inside and outside the courtroom. This approach will enable the justices to satisfy CDC and state public health guidelines as they work to clear the backlog of some 236 cases that have piled up since courts closed over public health concerns.
The Georgia Supreme Court ordered courts planning to resume in-person hearings to come up with a public safety plan. Judge Johnson delivered that plan in a recent 16-page order outlining how the hybrid model will work.
It gives everyone an option for in-person or virtual hearings.
Magistrate Court will use the Microsoft Teams platform to conduct virtual hearings. Those who choose to appear virtually will be instructed by the court on how to access the proceedings through their personal computer, tablet, or smartphone. They may also use computers in the courthouse law library.
Those who choose to appear in person will be required to follow certain rules. No more than four litigants will be allowed in the courtroom at any given time. Those entering the courtroom must wash their hands, wear a face covering, and observe the six-foot social distancing rule. To that end, attorneys will not be allowed to approach witnesses who are testifying in court.
To ensure that all proceedings are open to the public as required by law, each daily court session will be assigned a link people can use to log in and observe. Members of the public may access the link by contacting the Clerk of Court or assigned judge.
“Habersham County IT has been amazing in helping us to get this going,” Johnson says. “They increased our internet speeds in the courthouse which allows us to have the live streaming.”
Relying so heavily on the internet gives both justices pause. “We’re one-hundred percent relying on the internet to function as it’s supposed to,” Johnson says. Thomas adds her biggest concern is that the internet might go down. “But,” she adds, “we have an awesome IT department who is always willing to help.”
Despite their understandable anxiety over potential cyber complications, Johnson and Thomas both feel it’s necessary to expand their virtual courtrooms beyond first appearance and warrant hearings. “I’m limited as to doing my job to the best of my ability because of all the stays that have been put on the court. I’ve got to do something to move this forward,” the chief justice says. Judge Thomas is “looking forward to getting back to a ‘new normal’.”
Habersham County’s State and Superior Courts also are using technology and may expand their use in the future. Still, the man who first brought virtual court hearings to Habersham prefers the traditional courtroom setting. “When you’ve got the people with you in the room there’s a different atmosphere than a virtual hearing. There’s a different demeanor,” Johnson says.
Once the public health emergency in Georgia is lifted, Judge Johnson, who was just re-elected to a second full-term, says he’ll encourage people to return to court. In the meantime, the magistrates will lean into technology and a packed schedule to resolve the hundreds of cases before them. Judge Johnson laid out an ambitious timeline in his order that includes hearing at least seven cases per day, five days per week. If they keep to that schedule, the justices could clear the Habersham County Magistrate Court backlog within a few months.