Former Chief Justice Fletcher: Right to Counsel is a Matter of Fulfilling Constitutional Requirements

17th July, 2010
Rome News-Tribune
Lydia Senn

Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher said his biggest fear for Georgia could quickly become a reality if something is not done soon to fix the state’s declining indigent defense system.

“Clearly the state has an obligation under the Sixth Amendment to provide counsel to those who are indigent. The defense system is underfunded and put on the backs of 169 counties,” said Fletcher, who lives in Rome.

The indigent defense program, which provides legal aid to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, is facing budgetary shortfalls.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia has indicated there is strong interest at the state level in dismantling the statewide public defender program and returning oversight of the program to local county governments.

The program was created just five years after many feared the federal government might intervene in the matter, according to the ACCG.

Fletcher, who served as chief justice from 2001- 2005, said the current state of the program could have been prevented, and counties should not be responsible for the full burden of defense.

“I told the legislature years ago that we would have problems,” he said.

Fletcher said when he addressed members of both the Georgia House and Senate he suggested a funding mechanism be put in place. The funding was originally intended to come from add-on court fees and indigent application fees.

“There were $24 million funds collected but never budgeted to the indigent defense council. The very mechanism for funding was used for other special interest projects,” Fletcher said.

Many lawmakers have argued the defense of Fulton County courthouse shooter Brian Nichols drained the indigent defense fund while it was still in its infancy. But Fletcher feels that was a manufactured argument created to poke holes in the legitimacy of the system.

“The Nichols case was an aberration, I would compare it to a 100-year flood. It got out of hand, and it has been used against the system,” Fletcher said.

Nichols’ Atlanta death-penalty case came when the program was only three months old and cost taxpayers more than $2 million.

But Fletcher again notes the state has no choice but to fund the defense of those who cannot otherwise afford it.

“This program is greatly needed in this state, it is a matter of fulfilling constitutional requirements,” Fletcher said.

Without it, he says, the judicial system doesn’t work.

“The biggest problem is the number of people, death row inmates, who are trying to appeal but there is an overwhelming lack of funding. It has to be funded,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher also points out without an adequate defense system, cases remain backlogged and defendants remain in jail on the local taxpayers’ dime.

“Local government is providing funds and facilities at more than half the cost,” he said.

The solution to the growing problem, Fletcher says, is to allocate the funds collected through the specialized fees.

“There is no question that if the $24 million had been properly allocated, in all likelihood, we would not have these problems,” he said.