Court ruling for indigent inmates allowed to stand

The court said it dismissed the appeal because of a legal snafu -- the state Attorney General's Office failed to follow correct procedures when filing the appeal.

The office was trying to appeal a ruling in February by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter who ordered the state to provide lawyers to inmates who sought to appeal their convictions. The state public defender agency struggled to provide lawyers to inmates because of budgetary constraints.

In his ruling, Baxter said "the constitutional obligation to provide counsel ultimately rests on the state of Georgia ... [and] lack of funding does not excuse a failure to adequately provide indigent defense."

The state Supreme Court said the AG's office had incorrectly filed a direct appeal of Baxter's ruling. The state's Prison Litigation Reform Act did not allow that; instead, it required the state to file an application asking the court for permission to file such an appeal, the court said.

Russ Willard, a spokesman for AG Thurbert Baker, said his office disagrees with the decision and called it an "overbroad reading" of a law designed to curtail frivolous filings by prisoners. The state may ask the court to reconsider, he said.

Mike Caplan, a lawyer for the inmates, said court made the right call and added that the attorney general's  office must follow the same rules as all other litigants. "We are pleased with the court's decision today because individuals who have languished in jail for years will finally get their day in court," he said. "Without adequate indigent defense, the wheels of justice grind to a halt."

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