Human Rights Group Sues State Over Alleged Right To Counsel Violations

9th January, 2014
90.1 WABE
MICHELL ELOY

A human rights organization is suing the state for allegedly violating the right to counsel of indigent juveniles and adults facing criminal charges in the Cordele Judicial Circuit, and seeks remedies for alleged understaffing in the four-county circuit’s public defender’s office.

The proposed class suit alleges indigent minors accused of crimes in the southern judicial circuit, which includes Crisp, Ben Hill, Dooly and Wilcox counties, have frequently gone without the representation of a public defender in juvenile court. It also alleges adults in the same circuit don’t receive adequate, meaningful representation from public defenders during their trials.

“We’ve observed a number of [juvenile] proceedings where public defenders were not in court. There’s a prosecutor there and other probation officials, but public defenders were not there,” said Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the suit Wednesday Tuesday afternoon* in Fulton County Superior Court.

Hollie said SCHR has been monitoring proceedings in the circuit’s four superior courts for a few years, and began monitoring the four juvenile courts in 2013.

Hollie said the issues stem from a lack of staffing and funding for the Cordele Public Defender’s Office, which prevents it “from doing what is mandated under the U.S. Constitution and Georgia State Law.”

The complaint says the public defender’s office only has three full-time lawyers and one other under contract to work no more than 75 hours per month. As a result, the suit says, the lawyers are “required to handle such an excessive number of cases that they are unable to provide representation in all of the courts and cases in the Circuit.”

Hollie said the problem stems from a 2009 decision on the part of the four counties to stop funding attorney positions at the Cordele Public Defenders Office, putting that responsibility solely on the state.
Under Georgia Code, the state is responsible for ensuring legal counsel for the indigent.

Governor Nathan Deal’s office says it’s received notification of the suit – but declined to comment – citing pending litigation. The suit also names the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and commissioners of the four counties in the circuit, among others.