Court rules on public defender conflicts

A Georgia Supreme Court ruling issued Monday calls for conflict-free legal representation of the poor – and also makes the state’s indigent defense system more expensive for taxpayers.

The court ruled that public defenders in the same circuit office may only represent one defendant in a multi-defendant case, if representing more than one would create a conflict of interest. This commonly occurs in cases with defendants who have competing interests, such as when one person accepts a plea deal and agrees to testify against a co-defendant.

The decision means the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council likely will have to begin paying private attorneys to handle many of these “conflict” cases, imposing more costs on the system. There are thousands of such cases each year in the state’s defender system.

“We’re still trying to digest it and look at what the effects will be,” Travis Sakrison, executive director of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said. “It will likely cost millions of dollars.”

Sakrison said the decision could create “an unfunded mandate that significantly stalls our momentum to the detriment of our clients.” But he said he will look at the most effective and efficient options to handle the conflict cases.

“Everyone here genuinely cares about their clients and wants to do as good a job as they possibly can,” he said. “We’re going to continue to move forward.”

The state's public defender system was established four decades after the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1963 decision Gideon v. Wainwright, ruled that states must provide adequate legal representation to poor people accused of crimes. Georgia's system, composed primarily of 43 circuit public defender offices with state-salaried employees, replaced an uneven system of underfunded and — lawsuits contended — unconstitutional programs.

Since its inception, the defender agency has struggled to finance conflict cases.

In fiscal year 2011, the latest year such figures are available, the defender agency spent $4.6 million — about 12 percent of its overall budget — on 9,345 conflict cases, according to council records.

The state Supreme Court said it understood the financial ramifications of its decision.

“We realize that the professional responsibility of lawyers to avoid even imputed conflicts of interest in criminal cases … imposes real costs on Georgia’s indigent defense system, which continually struggles to obtain the resources needed to provide effective representation of poor defendants as the Constitution requires,” the court said. “But the problem of adequately funding indigent defense cannot be solved by compromising the promise of Gideon.”

Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said the court correctly ruled that the same ethical rules apply to public defenders representing the poor as to lawyers representing everyone else.

The state defender agency must now find ways to handle the conflict case loads, Bright said. He suggested the creation of independent offices with “conflict public defenders” as well as the appointment of private attorneys to represent co-defendants.

“Inadequate funding cannot be solved by compromising the right to counsel,” Bright said. “But inadequate funding is resulting in violations of the right to counsel in all types of cases. At some point, the court must address whether such a fundamental constitutional right can be routinely violated just because the state fails to fund it adequately.”

The state Supreme Court’s unanimous decision upheld a State Bar of Georgia opinion that said defenders in the same circuit office cannot represent co-defendants when a single defender would have a conflict representing the co-defendants.

The state defender agency had challenged the State Bar’s opinion, saying it could set up “ethical screens” within each local circuit office where one public defender representing a co-defendant would not talk about the case to a fellow defender representing another co-defendant. This arrangement had allowed the agency to save money that otherwise would have been paid to private attorneys for conflicts.

But the court said its prior rulings made it clear that attorneys at the same law firm could not represent a client when any one of the lawyers had a conflict of interest. A circuit public defender office is akin to a law firm, the ruling said.

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