Georgia’s court system could face an “avalanche of demands” that would “overwhelm” it, the state's top justice warns, when defendants file for a speedy trial after courts reopen following the yearlong shutdown because of the pandemic.

Harold Melton, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, made the daunting prediction during the 2021 State of the Judiciary address to the Georgia General Assembly on Tuesday morning.

”We realize the burden of having defendants waiting longer for trial for being in jail,” Melton said. "But we need to have a system that determines whether people who have been charged with a crime are guilty or innocent before allowing them to walk free."

The danger of a system overwhelmed by speedy trial is that if a court “fails to meet that deadline, the defendant is automatically acquitted and released,” he said.

Under the state’s speedy trial statuary law, if a defendant who files for a speedy trial does not receive a trial at the time the request is “made or at the next succeeding regular court term after that… the defendant shall be discharged and acquitted,” according to the Georgia code.

Melton also told lawmakers it could take two or three years to “dig out” of the backlog of jury trials put on hold during the this past year.

Melton has announced he's stepping down as chief justice in summer.