Fulton County attorney Willie Lovett said state law requires the county only to pay so-called "facility costs" to keep the lights and other utilities running, but not foot the bill for presenting thousands of pages of documents and transcribing more than 300 hours of telephone conversations to and from the jail where Mr. Nichols is being held.
"The intent of the Legislature is clear: Counties never pay for these expenditures," he told the justices. He added that the county has been caught flat-footed by the bill because it has never budgeted for these types of expenses.
Attorneys for the state-run Georgia Public Defenders Council argued that the county has a constitutional duty to pay for preparing and presenting the evidence, which includes video tapes, audio tapes, CDs and DVDs.
"That's a traditional cost that's borne by the county," said Robert Remar, a lawyer for the public defenders, who said the fees are "contingent costs" required by law to be paid by counties.
A ruling in the state's favor could force counties to foot the bill for costly expenses in high-profile death penalty cases such as the Nichols trial. Yet such a decision, said Justice Robert Benham, could also be devastating to smaller counties that don't have as great a tax base as densely populated Fulton County.
What would happen, he asked, if the shooting took place in rural Dawson County, a north Georgia community with a much smaller tax base? Should the local government bear the cost - even "if it could bankrupt the whole county?"
"That's a matter up to the General Assembly," Mr. Remar answered.
The appeal, which could be decided within weeks, is another signal of how costs of the Nichols case are affecting state policy.
Mr. Nichols is charged in a March 2005 shooting spree that began in the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta and left four people dead.
His trial has already been postponed until September because of a lack of funding.
Mr. Nichols has pleaded not guilty.
The case has cost the state public defender's office at least $1.4 million in fees and expenses.