"This is a claim that people are not getting counsel," said Ritter. "And we feel we have completely corrected any problems and this case should have been dismissed."
But Superior Court Judge J. David Roper was not immediately swayed. He did not dismiss the case and said he would weigh whether to certify a class action. He also said he would likely schedule a hearing that could involve judges, prosecutors and prisoners to testify on the extent of the problem.
"I think we need the players here so I know what's really going on," Roper said.
The lawsuit is one of the stiffest challenges yet to Georgia's public defender system, which like others across the country faces mounting funding problems amid the economic downturn.
It seeks to block prosecutions of indigent defendants in so-called "conflict" cases — those that involve multiple defendants — until they all have attorneys. In such cases, state-funded public defenders can only represent one person, so private attorneys are hired to represent the co-defendants.
But the complaint says the public defender system cut off much of the funding for three attorneys who handled conflict cases for the Northern Judicial Circuit, spanning five counties in northeast Georgia. It said the funding shortfall forced some defendants to wait in jails for months and show up to plea hearings without attorneys.
Ritter told the judge that the state moved swiftly to ensure all the defendants had lawyers after the lawsuit was filed.
"When we found out about these problems, we went out and immediately tried to rectify it," said Ritter.
But Weber argued the region is still riddled with problems.
He said as recently as last week officials in Oglethorpe County weren't assigning attorneys to indigent defendants. And he said attorneys in the region are already straying close to guidelines that limit how many clients they can see in a year.
"This is a moving target," he said. "There are still significant gaps."