Georgia defender agency sued for alleged open records violations

Tayo Alli is the executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Tayo Alli is the executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Council.

The Georgia Public Defender Council has repeatedly failed to comply with the state Open Records Act at a time when “it has left hundreds of Georgians languishing in jails for months or years without representation,” a lawsuit filed Monday alleged.

In the suit, the nonprofit Southern Center for Human Rights, which is investigating the crisis, said the state agency has improperly withheld records, failed to supply lists of those awaiting the appointment of counsel and charged unreasonable fees when it does produce records.

The Southern Center said its investigation has found more than 600 indigent people in need of a lawyer to represent them and many more have a lawyer in name only. “Put simply, the state of conflict-free representation in Georgia has reached a breaking point,” the suit said.

The problem has occurred statewide in multi-defendant cases where a local public defender office can represent one defendant but no other co-defendant due to a conflict of interest. For months, the agency has had a hard time finding “conflict-free” private attorneys willing to represent co-defendants.

The defender’s council’s failure to comply with the Open Records Act “is frustrating access to public records that demonstrate the scope of the present constitutional crisis,” the suit said. It is also “undermining (the Southern Center’s) efforts to advocate for people across Georgia who cannot afford, but are nevertheless entitled to, conflict-free representation.”

In a statement, the public defender council said it follows the law when responding to all open records requests and called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

“(The Southern Center) routinely submits requests for voluminous and duplicative datasets and records requiring significant administrative time to fulfill,” spokesman Thomas O’Connor said. “We believe that this is a frivolous complaint aimed at diverting the agency’s resources from its clients and redirecting those financial resources to (the Southern Center) through attorney’s fees and donor solicitations. These claims are without merit, and we look forward to fully and vigorously litigating this matter in court.”

In 1963, in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state must provide lawyers to indigent defendants fbecause having counsel is a fundamental right and essential to a fair trial. “Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” the high court said.

The suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, asks that a judge declare the defender council violated the Open Records Act and enter an order requiring the agency to promptly and completely respond to records requests. It also says that the agency should pay $1,000 in civil penalties for each time it violated the records law.

On Feb. 28, the Southern Center sent an email to state Attorney General Chris Carr asking him to initiate a mediation to resolve the open records dispute with the defender council.

“He never responded to a single email from us,” Southern Center attorney Maya Chaudhuri said.

“Our position is that the Georgia Public Defender Council is wasting everyone’s time, when everyone should be focused on insuring that Georgians across the state are getting public defenders,” she said. Even worse, Chaudhuri added, “We expect the number of cases in which people need conflict lawyers will be rising.”