ATLANTA – Georgia’s statewide public defender council is fighting a new proposal that it fears could transform the way it provides legal counsel to poor defendants and potentially cost millions of dollars at a time when lawmakers are wary of funding increases.
The fight, which landed in the Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday, revolves around a proposal by the State Bar of Georgia that involves “conflict” cases – those involving multiple defendants.
The bar issued an opinion in June 2010 that said lawyers working in the same public defender office in the same judicial circuit can’t represent these types of cases. The proposal could force the system to either seek more legislative funding or find new ways to convince the legal community to take on more pro bono cases.
Bar attorneys argued that public defenders should be held to the same standard as private attorneys representing wealthy clients, who already follow a similar rule.
“It seems we’re sacrificing the interest of clients ... and it’s easy to pick on indigent defendants because they’re not really popular,” said Paula Frederick, the bar’s general counsel.
But the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council says the change could devastate its mission to provide timely legal defense for the state’s neediest. Their attorneys contend they are the best equipped to handle these types of cases, and shifting the responsibility to outside attorneys could jeopardize the mission to see every indigent client within 72 hours of arrest
“For us this is not an academic question or a philosophical question. We are experts in representing poor people,” said Michael Edwards, the Savannah public defender. He said any change would amount to a “vast increase in the number of cases that would not be receiving the expertise of public defenders.”
“And people are going to be sitting in jail languishing until we can see them,” he said.
The court’s justices provided few clues on how they will rule on the issue, though Justice David Nahmias asked state attorneys a pointed question about why the council should be treated differently than other legal entities, such as private law firms and prosecutorial offices, which follow the bar’s guidelines.
While the oral arguments focused on the legal analysis of the bar’s decision, it wasn’t all about ethical rules. Legal briefs filed in the case noted that the thorny issue of cost is the “proverbial elephant in the room” and that’s what commentary about the case focused on outside court.
Council director Travis Sakrison said about 9,400 cases – about 7.5 percent of the council’s caseload – are now conflict cases, at the cost of about $4.5 million a year. But he said adopting the rule could triple that number, requiring the state to shell out as much as $9 million more.
“This is not about trying to sell clients short,” he said. “It’s about them trying to change things in midstream.”
But supporters of the rule change downplay the cost. Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights said the proposal would fulfill the Constitution’s promise of equal justice for all, and that the state can set up a robust system of conflict offices around the state devoted to these cases.
“They’re saying because of the expense, we’re not going to give people charged with crimes the same constitutional protections they deserve,” said Bright.
“It won’t cost millions. It’s not going to break the bank. And otherwise, we’ll have bargain basement justice for the people.”