SCHR Settles Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Hundreds of Poor People without Lawyers

9th July, 2010
Southern Center for Human Rights

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – To guarantee the right to counsel for poor people accused of crimes in the Northern Judicial Circuit, the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) entered a Consent Order with the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council (GPDSC) and the local Public Defender Office.   The Consent Order was approved by Superior Court Judge David Roper on July 8, 2010.  

“This Consent Order addresses the key problems we saw--failure to provide lawyers to indigent persons and needed oversight of the conflict process.  We expect the State to honor this order and we will step in if flaws develop,” said Senior SCHR Attorney Gerry Weber.

SCHR filed Cantwell v. Crawford in April 2009, in the Superior Court of Elbert County, to protect men and women in the five counties of the Northern Judicial Circuit from being prosecuted without an attorney to advocate on their behalf.  At the time the lawsuit was filed, approximately 300 people were left without lawyers after Mack Crawford, Director of GPDSC, failed to renew contracts with lawyers who were providing representation to defendants whose interests conflicted with those of defendants represented by the Northern Judicial Circuit public defender office.  GPDSC had also slashed the Northern Judicial Circuit’s budget for conflict cases from about $130,000 to about $37,000.  Pleas to GPDSC for help from the Northern Circuit’s Circuit Public Defender, Joel Shiver, went unheeded.  

The Consent Order requires GPDSC to appoint counsel within one business day after being notified of the need for appointed counsel in a conflict case, barring extenuating circumstances.   The Consent Order also places a cap on the number of felony and misdemeanor cases that a contract attorney can handle at any one time.  Judge Roper also entered findings of fact in the case, concluding that the “Georgia indigent defense system is broken” and that “organization, efficiency, and accountability” are all issues for the under-funded system.  

“SCHR entered into this Consent Order so that people who are poor and accused of crimes in the Northern Judicial Circuit who cannot be represented by the local public defender office because of an ethical conflict do not languish in jail or have their lives irrevocably shattered by the State’s failure to provide them with representation,” said SCHR Managing Attorney Melanie Velez.  She continues, “Georgia simply cannot allow budgetary considerations to trump the constitutional right to an effective lawyer.”

SCHR commends Joel Shiver, Circuit Public Defender for the Northern Judicial Circuit, for voluntarily entering the case to help ensure that counsel is promptly appointed in conflict cases out of the Northern Circuit.  Under the Consent Order, Mr. Shiver will send GPDSC notice when his public defender office has determined that there is an ethical conflict in representing an indigent person accused of a crime in the Northern Judicial Circuit.  “It’s our mandate as lawyers to zealously represent the interest of our clients…if we … represent clients with competing interests [,] we’re not going to be able to advance their cause with … zeal,” stated Mr. Shiver at the March 2010 hearing in this case.  

SCHR appreciates the State's efforts in resolving this case and trusts that Georgia will not again allow considerations about money to overshadow the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.    The Cantwell matter is one in a series of lawsuits filed by SCHR in response to the State’s continued refusal to fully fund the State’s indigent defense system.  In June 2008, Director Crawford attempted to close the Metro Conflict Defender office and reversed the decision only after SCHR filed suit.  In December 2009, SCHR also filed suit on behalf of poor people who were not provided with attorneys to handle their motions for new trial and appeals.  The case is Flournoy v. Georgia and is currently before Judge Baxter in Fulton County.

For additional information or to set up an interview, contact Sara Totonchi at 404/688-1202 or stotonchi (at) schr.org

###

Media Coverage:

Atlanta Journal Constitution: Judge Lashes Out on State Defender System

Athens Banner-Herald: Judge Acts to Assure Lawyers for Poor

Georgia Public Broadcasting: Poor Defendants Gain Faster Access to Lawyer