In a stunner, national legal expert seeks Cordele post

A nationally recognized expert in indigent defense is so enraged by what he calls the “worst public defender office in the state” that he has applied to run the place.

The bid by Stephen Bright, senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, to become the head of the Cordele Circuit Defender Office will surprise many members of Georgia’s legal establishment.

It means Bright is seeking to head the same South Georgia indigent defense office that he has sued twice. This includes a pending suit that contends the office fails to provide meaningful representation to adult defendants and allows juvenile defendants to go completely unrepresented in court proceedings.

“Oh, Lord, that’s amazing,” former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher said when told Bright had put in for the Cordele job. “And anybody with his credentials in this area? You couldn’t find anyone better-qualified.”

In addition to his work at the Southern Center, Bright is an expert in death penalty litigation, has been a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and has taught criminal procedure at the law schools at Harvard, Yale, Emory, UGA and others.

Bright would do a fine job — and also probably irritate a the county commissioners and judges named as defendants in his litigation, Fletcher said.

The attorney’s first lawsuit against Cordele, filed in 2003, prompted statewide reforms.

“I played a small role in bringing about the creation of Georgia’ public defender system and I have cared deeply about the representation of poor people accused of crimes throughout my career,” Bright said. “I can imagine no greater contribution that I could make to justice in Georgia than taking responsibility for the worst public defender office in the state and turning it into a model for Georgia and the nation.”

Bright said he is seeking the Cordele defender job because he believes the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council acted in bad faith when trying to fill the position. The council’s executive director, Travis Sakrison, recently removed Cordele circuit defender Tim Eidson and allowed him to switch jobs with Burt Baker, who had been representing defendants facing the death penalty. Baker is now interim director of the Cordele office.

A local selection committee stopped taking applications for the job on Monday and is expected to submit a short list of candidates to Sakrison, who will then name Cordele’s next public defender. The position pays $94,700 a year.

In a court filing on Monday, Bright and other lawyers sought to halt the hiring process. They are asking a Fulton County judge to require that the selection committee conduct “a fair, open and honest hiring process,” not a “transparent sham.”

The hiring process is set up in such a way that no top-flight public defenders will apply, Bright said. “Accordingly, I am applying for the position of circuit defender because people accused of crimes in the circuit should no longer suffer continued deprivation of their right to counsel due to the failure to conduct an open and above-board hiring process.”

Sakrison disagreed with Bright’s interpretation of what happened during the hiring process and the law governing it.

“We feel like we’ve done everything we can to follow the law,” Sakrison said. “I am surprised that someone else disagrees with that.”

As for Bright’s application, Sakrison said, “If the local panel decides to put him on the short list of names, I look forward to interviewing him.”

The job as head public defender comes with many challenges. The Cordele circuit — Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox counties — is the only one in Georgia where counties provide no supplemental funding to the state-run office. For this reason, the office’s three lawyers carry a crushing load of about 1,700 cases a year.

Bright, 65, is regarded for his tireless work ethic and willingness to speak his mind. When it named him the state’s top newsmaker in 2003, the Daily Report, Atlanta’s legal publication, called Bright “Agitator of the Year.”

He has decades of experience, dating back to 1976 when he was a public defender in Washington. Since taking over the Southern Center in 1982, he has represented death-penalty defendants, including two cases he won in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Steve Bright is the most conscientious, meticulous and zealous advocate,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel said. “If the folks who make the decision about choosing the public defender in that circuit have the courage to choose Mr. Bright, that circuit will become the model for public defenders in the state, the southeast and the nation.”