By Andy Miller and Rebecca Grapevine
Lorna DeLoach and her husband were diagnosed with COVID-19 a week ago.
“I’m just taking it day by day,’’ she said Wednesday while battling a fever. “I’ve got some secondary infection going on.’’
DeLoach, 56, believes she was infected with COVID while performing her duties as the probate court judge of Bulloch County.
“We’re so exposed,’’ she said. “There’s no hiding in chambers for us.”
A high number of probate court judges in Georgia have been infected with the virus.
Since April, 33 probate judges in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s up from 17 in November. With one probate judge for each of the state’s 159 counties, that’s an infection rate of about 20 percent. And 69 clerks of those courts have been infected.
Three of these judges have died, as has one clerk.
Probate court judges have mixed with the public throughout the pandemic, despite the danger of infection. They administer wills and estates, appoint and oversee guardians and conservators, and issue marriage and weapons-carry licenses. And the gun licenses have soared in recent months as never before, DeLoach noted.
“We can’t work from home,’’ she said. “It’s just not possible.”
The infection toll has prompted Kevin Holder, executive director of the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia, to call for court personnel to be prioritized for vaccination. “There is growing frustration about that,’’ he said.
But court personnel at other levels in Georgia have also wondered when their turn will come to get a vaccine.
Chief Justice Harold Melton of the Georgia Supreme Court said Tuesday that he has made the case to Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration for vaccination of court personnel.
Melton indicated he understands the difficult position Kemp is in when it comes to establishing vaccination priorities.
“I don’t place myself in his shoes,’’ he told GHN. “I have the sense they’ve heard us.”
The governor has recently expanded vaccine eligibility to educators, people with developmental disabilities, and parents of children with complex medical needs. They joined health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, seniors, police and first responders on the eligible list.
Melton on Tuesday lifted the suspension of jury trials in the state, which had been a response to the pandemic. He cited the decline in the daily count of COVID cases, with numbers well down from their winter peaks.
Over the course of the past year, he said, “There have been court personnel of all types who have contracted the virus.’’
Yet with more people coming into courts, “it’s critically important for court personnel to have access to the vaccine,’’ Melton said.
There’s an urgent need for vaccination, said Brian Amero, chief judge of Henry County Superior Court. He’s president of the Council of Superior Court Judges.
“We are a group that badly needs to be bumped up in line,’’ Amero said. “The constitutional right to a jury trial is of fundamental importance, and we would like to see public health officials vaccinate courthouse employees, prosecutors and public defenders.”
Judges point out that court personnel were listed with teachers and other ‘‘critical workforce employees’’ in Georgia’s original Phase 1B plan. But that priority list has been blurred over time.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Kemp said he, officials of the Department of Public Health and medical providers “are working tirelessly to distribute the vaccine across the state as quickly as possible.’’
“The Governor’s top priority has been to take care of seniors who are the most vulnerable to the virus,’’ said the spokeswoman, Mallory Blount. “Just this week, he expanded the criteria to include teachers and educators and other at-risk Georgians. Our office is hoping to further expand the criteria soon, pending more vaccine supply from the federal government.’’
Kemp said Wednesday that he is planning to open up vaccinations March 15 for people over age 55 and those with high-risk medical conditions. And he said the state plans to open up vaccinations to all adults during the first part of April.
The long wait to face trial
By blocking jury trials for months, COVID-19 has caused severe disruptions in the court system.
“We’ve been extremely concerned from Day One about safety of court [personnel] and people coming in,’’ Melton said. “We’ve restricted court activity accordingly.’’
But competing with that safety focus, he said, is the fundamental notion that people are innocent till proven guilty, and that trials need to be conducted in a timely fashion. “Individuals have been in jail for a year or more,’’ Melton said. “Our constitution is still alive [despite] the pandemic.’’
The delays have created a tremendous backlog in jury trials.
Amero said the backlog “disturbs me greatly.”
He said it puts “undue pressure” on people who are in jail pending a jury trial to take a plea rather than keep waiting for their day in court.
Prior to the pandemic, Amero’s trial calendar had about 80 cases on it. Now he has 315 on his calendar. He has been using technology as much as possible for motions, bond hearings, pretrial hearings and probation revocations.
Many court proceedings in the state, in fact, have turned virtual, with judges conducting hearings via Zoom in family and civil cases.
Melton, while lifting the suspension on jury trials, urged judges to use technology where possible for remote proceedings “as a safer alternative” and to “manage case calendars to minimize the number of participants gathering both in the courtroom and in common areas outside of courtrooms.”
Shots for jurors?
The Council of State Court Judges of Georgia says that COVID has exacted a heavy toll.
Bob Bray, the council’s executive director, said this week that he knows of five state court judges who were infected. “State courts have been doing everything they can to work. When they have had to stop work, they resumed right away.”
He said judges are looking forward to the day everyone who appears in court will be vaccinated.
And Bray said there may be some judges who have traveled out of state to get a shot.
“I’ve heard that some judges (not sure which class of court) are able to get vaccinations in Alabama now.’’
Meanwhile, there are concerns about getting enough people to answer summonses and appear for jury duty.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said its members are worried about a potentially diminished jury pool and whether jurors who are uncomfortable with COVID-19 protocols might have their verdict influenced, the Georgia Recorder reported.
A study conducted this year by Dubin Research and Consulting found that 74% of people who answered a survey said they would worry about their health if called upon to serve on a jury.
Amero has an idea to help persuade potential jurors to show up at court.
He said people should be able to use their summons as a ticket for vaccination. The summonses are sent out 25 days in advance, so jurors could be fully vaccinated by the time the trial starts, he said.
“Trial by jury is as important as making sure our children are taught in the schools. People who work in the court system need to be higher on the priority list for vaccination, and it needs to happen now.”
Rebecca Grapevine is a freelance journalist who was born and raised in Georgia. She has written about public health in both India and the United States, and she holds a doctorate in history from the University of Michigan.