It's one of the stiffest legal challenges yet to the system, which has lost support from powerful state legislators and faces mounting funding problems amid the economic downturn.
The lawsuit, filed in Elbert County Superior Court, contends that about 300 defendants who can't afford their own lawyers are "left to languish in jail" because they are not provided legal counsel. Some have been without lawyers for six months, it says.
"We have a stadium's worth of folks in North Georgia with no attorneys to defend them," said Gerry Weber, an attorney for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit. "Many of these people sit in jail, presumed innocent, penniless and lawyerless."
The public defender system has been plagued by funding problems since it was launched in 2005. Hefty defense bills for the trial of Atlanta courthouse gunman Brian Nichols which may have topped $2 million became a rallying cry for deep cuts and more legislative control over the system even before the state was slammed with a $2.6 billion deficit.
System director Mack Crawford did not return repeated phone calls. But he has said the agency is doing its best to cope with budget cuts that eliminated around 10 percent of its budget.
The lawsuit targets so-called "conflict" cases that involve multiple defendants. In such cases, state-funded public defenders can only represent one person, so private attorneys are hired to represent the co-defendants.
But the public defender system cut off much of the funding for three attorneys who handled conflict cases for the Northern Judicial Circuit, spanning five counties in northeast Georgia.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five defendants, claims that the funding shortfall forced some defendants to wait in jails for months and show up to plea hearings without attorneys.
One of the plaintiffs, Chris Cantwell, said he sat in the Elbert County Jail between November 26 and February 10 while he waited for an attorney to defend him on burglary and theft charges. Eventually, he said a judge encouraged him to enter a "not guilty" plea although he still didn't have a lawyer.
While he sat in jail, he said he lost his job, his apartment and his dog, and missed his grandfather's funeral. He also said $1,400 of equipment was stolen from his home.
"I lost too much," he said. "If I was only in jail for one month, I wouldn't have lost my apartment, the things that were stolen from me, and I would have been able to go to my grandfather's funeral.
"I want there to be money in the budget so no one else has to go through what I went through."