Georgia high court limits public defenders to resolve conflicts

Justices rule on conflicts



In an opinion released Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that public defender offices cannot represent more than one criminal defendant in the same case if there is a conflict of interest.

That means indigent defense will be more expensive, Superior Court Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said Monday. However, he said, the state of Georgia has been collecting more money for indigent defense than it has been spending on the service.

The state and counties split the cost of public defender offices. According to a 2011 performance audit by the State Department of Audits and Accounts, the state contributed $40 million in 2010 while counties paid $70 million.

With the ongoing state budget woes, Overstreet said he expects the counties to be pushed to pay the added expense.

In 2013, Richmond County’s budget for indigent defense is more than $3.32 million.

In Richmond County Superior Court, there are 112 pending felony cases with more than one defendant. The public defender’s office represents the majority of defendants.

The Georgia Supreme Court acknowledged there will be an increased cost.

“But the problem of adequately funding indigent defense cannot be solved by compromising the promise of Gideon,” the justices wrote.

In a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago, the Gideon case established a constitutional right to legal counsel.

The public defender system was established 10 years ago in Georgia to provide a statewide, standardized method of providing legal representation for people living below the federal poverty level. But there was no rule to guide public defenders on what to do if they had more than one client in the same case.

In 2010, the State Bar of Georgia, asked to weigh in on the issue, released an advisory opinion that public defenders should seek outside legal counsel when a conflict existed – such as one client blaming the crime on a second public defender client.

The board overseeing the statewide public defender system appealed, asking the Georgia Supreme Court to decide. Monday, the court found the State Bar of Georgia’s advisory opinion was correct.




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