Suit against Ga. cites lack of indigent defense

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A group of lawyers on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia for failing to provide legal counsel to 200 convicted indigent defendants who do not have representation for their appeals.

The suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, comes on behalf of Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore, P.C.; Garland, Samuel and Loeb, P.C.; Moraitakis, Kushel, and Pearson, LLP; Martin Brothers, P.C.; and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) against the chairman, director, and staff members of the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council (GPDSC) as well Gov. Sonny Perdue and the state treasurer.

“Appeals are a critical safeguard to ensure that convictions are constitutional and the right to counsel is no less important on appeal than it is at trial. It is inexcusable for some of our plaintiffs to have been incarcerated for years without counsel when the law could not be clearer,” Lauren Sudeall Lucas, staff attorney at SCHR, said in a press release. “The Constitution has to be a line item in the State’s budget.”

The appellate division of the GPDSC has some problems. From the SCHR press release:

Although the State carries the final constitutional obligation, the Appellate Division of the GPDSC is delegated with providing conflict-free counsel to poor people with convictions who are seeking to pursue motions for new trial and their first direct appeal.  As a result of severe budget cuts in the prior two years, the Appellate Division is now staffed by only 2 full-time and 1 part-time staff attorneys, and has a total of $300,000 in funding for the appointment of private counsel.  It currently has a caseload of over 475 cases.

In December of 2008, the Appellate Division had been assigned 249 cases, and was unable to assign 75 persons appellate lawyers.  The Appellate Division Director, Jimmonique Rodgers, raised an alarm with supervising officials, writing in a memo to her GPDSC superiors that the Appellate Division had an “impossible case load” and that as a result, it had “passed the crisis point.”  Its incapacity to handle its caseload has led to a critical mass of unrepresented people throughout Georgia.

The suit names six plaintiffs, two of whom have been incarcerated without legal counsel for over three years. Another has been without representation and the GPDSC “is unable to even estimate” when his situation might change.

As of Nov. 23, there are 157 people without legal representation, with 57 percent of these waiting over a year for a lawyer to assist with appeals.

“This case shows that at its current funding levels, the GPDSC is incapable of meeting its obligations to provide counsel to those accused and convicted of crimes. If the state does not meet its obligation to fund indigent defense, then the courts will intervene and require it to do so,” Michael A. Caplan, representing the Plaintiffs for Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, LLP, said Tuesday. “When our system of criminal justice does not itself comply with the rule of law, its integrity is fairly questioned. That integrity is what is at issue in this case.”

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