Cobb BOC approves court renovations for COVID-19 safety measures

photo of Cobb Superior Court building from the front with a blue sky with clouds in the backgroundCobb County Superior Court (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

At its meeting Tuesday evening the Cobb County Board of Commissioners approved the use of $3,957,800.00 for extensive renovations to Cobb County’s courts. The vote passed 4-0, with Commissioner Keli Gambrill absent.

Sharon Stanley, Cobb’s Support Services Agency director, said to the Board of Commissioners, “As you’ve heard earlier, many constitutionally required hearings and other statutory required duties were delayed, cancelled or stayed.”

“We are requesting that the Board of Commissioners approved an appropriation of funds from the funding distributed to the county under this plan (the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) in the amount of $3,957,800 for substantial renovations to various courtrooms to implement COVID-19 safety measures,” she said.

The details of the proposed renovations were described in the written request as follows:

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Grand jury room expansion – While grand jury proceedings were temporarily halted due to the Georgia Judicial Emergency, in late fall of 2020, grand jury proceedings were allowed to reconvene if social distancing and safeguards could be taken. This has been accomplished with the use of the Superior Court jury assembly room, however, since jury trials have now recommenced, there is no longer available the necessary space to allow for safe and healthy grand jury proceedings. There is existing unfinished space for an additional grand jury room which will allow for the necessary precautions. It is requested that this room be renovated to allow for grand jury proceedings.

Superior Court 12th jury trial courtroom (5th) build-out – The Cobb County Superior Court has been fortunate to not have been closed during the pandemic due to the transition to virtual court as a result of theavailability of CARES funding which allowed for technology upgrades. However, not all matters may be conducted virtually. Contested criminal matters cannot be handled virtually. They must be conducted in-person. The existing courtrooms were designed purposefully small and, in order to conduct a socially distanced trial, live stream to a second courtroom is required. This substantially impacts courthouse efficiency. In order to more timely resolve the current backlog, an additional courtroom is needed to be able to conduct more than two jury trials simultaneously while allowing for the remaining courtrooms to conduct non-jury matters.

Superior Court multi-purpose courtroom – While the additional courtroom will greatly enhance the courthouse efficiencies, compliance with health guidelines remains an issue when the more complex, lengthier trials with multiple defendants spill over into a second week. With new trials scheduled weekly, this creates a logistical space challenge. Recently a makeshift area had to be set up in a hallway with chairs and A/V for public seating which also required security by the Sheriff. In order to avoid such a situation, it is requested that a multipurpose courtroom space be built out on the fourth floor with a holding cell. Not installing fixed pews will allow the maximum flexibility to reconfigure the room from a bench trial courtroom, to a public viewing area, to a jury deliberation room, and a meeting room, perhaps all in the same week.

Magistrate renovation – Currently, fewer cases are scheduled per court session in order to ensure social distancing; this only creates more of a backlog as new filings are increasing. In order to meet tight statutory timelines and maintain adherence to public health guidelines, the proposed renovation of two courtrooms is requested. This will allow social distancing through scheduling small, staggered calendars while being able to hold more hearings simultaneously. Included in the renovation request is the reconfiguration of spaces within the Clerk’s Office and Mediation areas to fully allow for social distancing and the protection of Cobb citizens and staff.

Probate courtroom – The probate court currently only has one courtroom due to the second courtroom being repurposed to accommodate license division staff for the last few years. However, in order to handle the increased demands of the Estates Division and to be able to meet current health guidelines, it is necessary that the second courtroom be reclaimed as non-jury courtroom.

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