State Slapped With Lawsuit Over Indigent Defense

15th December, 2009
Georgia Public Broadcasting
Emily Green

ATLANTA — Budget problems across the country mean many states are struggling to find a way to pay for indigent defense.

In Georgia, another lawsuit has been filed against the state for failing to provide lawyers for poor defendants. Filed Tuesday morning, the lawsuit claims 200 poor inmates are without lawyers to help them appeal their convictions.

It's one of several suits alleging Georgia has violated the U.S. Constitution because it fails to adequately fund the public defender system, leaving hundreds of poor defendants without lawyers to assist with their cases.

In November 2009, the Georgia Supreme Court heard the case of death row inmate Jamie Weiss, who went more than three years without legal representation. His lawyers are asking the state to, at the least, dismiss the death penalty portion of the case.

However, state officials say lawsuits are counterproductive.

“If these lawyers were truly interested in helping the defendants, they would focus on getting them the services they need instead of chewing up state dollars on a lawsuit. Unfortunately, the state will be forced to spend already limited dollars on unnecessary litigation instead of serving these defendants,” says Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for Governor Perdue.

At the Southern Center for Human Rights, attorneys for the poor hope the various lawsuits will force the state to take a hard look at how it funds the public defenders system.

We want the state to "revisit the question of how we structure things, how we fund things," says Lauren Sudeall, a lawyer with the Southern Center.

Jon Rapping, head of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, says Georgia’s indigent defense system is in bad shape.

“It is rapidly deteriorating. I think things may get worse before they get better,” says Rapping.

In 2005, Georgia lawmakers overhauled the state’s public defender system.

Experts hoped the state’s system would serve as a model for the rest of the country, according to Rapping. Instead, Georgia's public defender system has consistently seen its budget cut.

Constitutionally obligated to represent poor defendants, some say public defenders have been left in a a financial bind.

“There are a lot of great public defenders out there, and despite their best efforts they are failing to live up to their constitutional and ethical obligations to their clients,” says Rapping.

Similar cases of poor funded indigent defense systems have popped up around the country.

Indigent defendants in Michigan are suing that state over money and oversight to the state’s public defender system.

And in Missouri, the state Supreme Court acknowledged the public defenders office has excessive caseloads but say the office cannot pick and choose which categories of defendants to represent.