A decision budget negotiators made not to approve a proposed $1 million budget cut from the state public defender’s appellate office possibly prevented the state from being sued for denying indigent defendants the right to counsel.
But even though the office was spared, the Georgia Public Defender Council was already in the process of disbanding it. The day before Thursday’s budget agreement, the office’s 12 appellate lawyers were told to find jobs elsewhere in the state defender system.
The move by the GPDC left some scratching their heads, particularly those who had strongly advocated for the appellate office to escape crippling budget cuts.
“We are extremely grateful to the Legislature for prioritizing public defenders, especially given this time of sacrifice,” said Sara Totonchi, the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “To learn that the agency on the receiving end of this generosity intends to dismantle the appellate division anyway is stunning and baffling. Most concerning is the harm that will be done to incarcerated people who are depending on their appellate attorneys to fight for them.”
Totonchi didn't rule out possible litigation if the office is not restored.
The defender system did not see cuts as deep as many other agencies in the final budget, which reduced spending by $2.2 billion to meet the expected revenue decline due to the coronavirus pandemic.
GPDC Executive Director Omotayo Alli, who has alienated herself from legal groups that support the defender system, confirmed the appellate office will be restructured.
In the coming weeks, a consulting group will help the defender office find better ways to handle appeals of indigents seeking new trials or to overturn their convictions, Alli said.
“We need to come up with a system that is good for everyone,” Alli said, adding she was delighted the $1 million cut was averted. “We want it to be effective, and we will make sure we meet the statutory and constitutional requirements.”
Eleven of the 12 lawyers in the appellate office have already found new jobs in the defender system, she said.
The appellate office handles a small fraction of the hundreds of appeals that must be filed every year. Private attorneys with contracts with the council handle the bulk of the work for $2,000 an appeal.
But lawyers in the appellate office have typically handled the most difficult appeals — those with complex legal issues and lengthy trial transcripts that take a great deal of time to sift through. In recent months, the office has scored important victories before the Georgia Supreme Court on behalf of a number of clients.
That includes a landmark decision by the state high court in October that determined Henry County police should have obtained a warrant to download data stored in a car’s computer system during a crash investigation. It was the first ruling by a state supreme court to address warrantless access to personal data taken from air bag control modules.
Last month, the court unanimously reversed the murder conviction against Esco Hill in Chattooga County, agreeing with appellate office arguments that the trial judge improperly allowed jurors to see Hill shackled in constraints during his trial.
Mike Caplan, one of the lawyers who successfully litigated that case, said he is concerned that the elimination of jobs in the appellate office will lead to a crisis similar to the one exposed 10 years ago. “Director Alli’s decision to dismantle the appellate division despite it being fully funded is an insult to the Legislature and an affront to the Constitution,” he said.
In a letter sent Friday, the Southern Center's Totonchi and senior lawyer Atteeyah Hollie implored Alli to restore the council's appellate division.
“The abrupt elimination of this division is reminiscent of previous efforts of the GPDC to reduce staffing in the name of budget austerity,” they wrote.
Totonchi and Hollie informed Alli that if she follows through on her plan to dismantle the division or does not respond to the letter by close of business on Monday, “we will be compelled to pursue litigation.”
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