Channel 2 Action News has learned the shutdown of a metro courthouse is not only impacting jury trials, but it could also cause major problems for anyone looking to buy or sell a house.
DeKalb County Chief Judge Latisha Dear Jackson said video provided by the court shows how Christmas Eve water from a broken pipe rolled into the justice tower that contains all the courtrooms in the DeKalb Courthouse complex, closing most access to the tower potentially for months
“It was unbelievable. It was literally raining inside,” Jackson told Channel 2 Investigative reporter Mark Winne.
“We had a pipe that burst in the roof level of the seventh floor. It went all the way down to the basement,” Jackson said. “We have six courtrooms that have water damage and are out of commission.”
Jackson said she was part of a contingent that hustled to the courthouse that night.
“I came in with my rain boots,” she said.
Jackson said she signed a new order Wednesday saying all jury trials shall be suspended until April 3 and outlining other measures to deal with the crisis.
“We are not doing in-person until we can make sure that it is just safe for everyone to enter the building,” Jackson said. “That is not a hard date obviously. If the construction and everything is safe for us with the air quality, and the construction happens before, we’ll move in before and if it’s after that, then we’ll push that back.
She told Winne that DeKalb’s courts, like others across Georgia, are still digging out from the case backlog caused by COVID-19, which has interrupted trials over the last three years. The current disaster will add to that backlog.
Jackson said the lessons of COVID-19 will lessen the magnitude of the current disaster.
“We’ve been here before,” Jackson said. “We have a plan in place that will allow for the return of indictments or for grand jurors to continue to meet. We still are doing civil hearings, domestic hearings, domestic non-trials. All virtual. We are still doing pleas on cases.”
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston also told Winne that the flooding will add to the jury trial backlog.
“We have learned how to pivot, not being able to have jury trials. (It) does put a stop to some parts of the system, but jury trials are the final piece,” Boston said.
Dekalb Superior Court Clerk Deborah DeBerry said she’s especially concerned that the deed room, critical for title searches needed for home sale closings and more, while not flooded, is part of the limited access area of the courthouse -- at least until safe air quality can be assured.
“This is a top priority of this administration, this government, recognizing the need to get the courts fully operational as quickly as possible,” said Dekalb Chief Operating Officer Zachary Williams, who is personally overseeing the restoration. “We will be constantly monitoring our air quality and taking whatever necessary steps to ensure that people are working in a safe environment.”
He said the county’s filing an insurance claim but using reserve funds to start repairs ASAP and is extending the contractor’s hours beyond 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We couldn’t do this outside the resources that we got from the CEO’s office,” Jackson said.
The judge told Winne that the older side of the courthouse which houses offices and so on will remain open as usual.
DeBerry said she has already moved other important functions of her office to unaffected areas since the Superior Court system cannot function without the record-keeping for the court her office provides.