Recent developments in a lawsuit over the right to counsel for poor children and adults accused of crimes in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit has revealed the importance of representation by a lawyer for some of the public officials sued in the case. However, they have been concerned about their own representation in the case, while showing no concern for the lack of representation or token representation received for years by poor children and adults accused of crimes.
The circuit’s three public defenders handle an annual caseload of approximately 1700 children and adults accused of crimes – 567 cases for each attorney, far more than any attorney can competently and ethically handle. As a result, people arrested in the Circuit often go for months without seeing a lawyer. The only interaction that many children and adults have with a public defender is being told of a plea offer shortly before arraignment at which they are expected to enter a guilty plea. They are processed through the courts in what is called “meet em and plead em.” Children are often not represented at all.
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of children and adults to enforce the right to counsel guaranteed by the Constitution in January, 2014, and amended on October 3. Georgia, its governor, the state’s public defender agency, the judges in the circuit, and the circuit’s public defender supervisory committee were among those named as defendants.
Former Attorney General Michael Bowers and other lawyers at the firm of Balch and Bingham filed a motion on behalf of the judges on January 5, 2015, seeking to have the court compel the Attorney General’s office to pay them for representing the judges. They argued that the uncertainly regarding representation for the judges created a “crisis in representation.” The governor quickly agreed to pay the lawyers. Later in the week, the two lawyers on the circuit’s public defender supervisory panel resigned because they were not provided lawyers.
The plight of the judges and the lawyers on the supervisory panel hardly compares to that of people in jail, charged with crimes, who know nothing about the law, languishing in jail for months without seeing a lawyer. There is no chance that they will get anything close to the kind of representation that Balch and Bingham, one of the nation’s top law firms, will be providing the judges.
The public defender office is underfunded and understaffed. It has so few lawyers because the Georgia legislature does not appropriate funds for defense of the accused and the four counties in the Cordele Circuit, Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox, and the only counties in the state that do not fund positions for attorneys and investigators in the public defender office.