Lack of representation by public defender office challenged

23rd September, 2014
Southern Center for Human Rights

Atlanta, GA –The public defender office in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit has three attorneys, one investigator and an annual caseload of approximately 1700. That is 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. Children are often not represented at all.

The public defender office has so few lawyers because the circuit is the only one in Georgia in which its counties, Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox, do not fund positions for attorneys and investigators in the public defender office.

The lack of representation was challenged in a lawsuit filed in January, 2014, and amended on October 3. The suits seeks to end the neglect of people accused of crimes and the processing of people through the system, and to ensure that children and adults facing charges in the Cordele Circuit have the benefit of an engaged attorney who will advocate for their best interests.

However, instead, Travis Sakrison, the director of Georgia’s state-wide public defender agency, appointed Burt Baker, who had formerly served as Cordele Public Defender from 2004 through 2006 to the position on August 1, to be followed by a selection process. Baker had been involved in the neglect and processing of people through the courts that are the subject of the suit. He also maintained a hostile work environment for women was involved in serious instances of sexual harassment.  

It was not until 21 days after Baker had been selected on July 25, and 15 days after his formal appointment on August 1, that an announcement of the “opening” was posted on the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers listserv, which is subscribed to by 2.2 percent of Georgia’s 36,228 lawyers. The notice gave applicants only six business days to send their applications to a post office box. During that brief window, SCHR president and senior counsel Stephen B. Bright applied for the position.

Lawyers from SCHR and Arnold & Porter filed an Emergency Motion to Enjoin Bad-Faith Sham Process of Hiring Circuit Public Defender on August 25 asking the Court to stop the sham process and require a fair, open and honest hiring process. The Court issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting any future action with regard to the hiring. The public defender officials filed a Response on August 29, and a Reply was filed on September 12, pointing out that if the public defender officials were serious about obtaining qualified applicants, they could have reopened the process while the issues were being briefed.

On September 16, the public defender officials relented and announced that they were reopening the process, that they would publicize the opening and accept applications until October 17.