Lawsuit alleges Cordele public defender understaffed

awomack@macon.comJanuary 8, 2014 

An advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against multiple state and county officials, seeking remedies for the alleged frequent absence of public defenders in the Cordele Judicial Circuit’s juvenile courts.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Fulton County Superior Court on behalf of eight plaintiffs, contends that the Cordele Public Defender Office is “severely understaffed” and lawyers are required to handle an excessive caseload, according to a news release from the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Cordele Judicial Circuit comprises Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox counties.

Children often appear in juvenile court without a lawyer because public defenders are busy in other courts, the center maintains, and many defendants who do consult with a public defender enter guilty pleas without substantive attorney-client interviews and professional advice.

In 2013, the public defender’s office was staffed with three lawyers as well as a fourth lawyer contracted to work no more than 75 hours a month. That’s half the staffing of the district attorney’s office, according to the complaint, which also says county funding for assistant public defenders has been cut.

The complaint also alleges that poor adults are being deprived of proper legal representation.

Cheryl Karounos, director of communications for the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, said the state agency was still reviewing the 85-page lawsuit Wednesday but had plans to mount a defense.

“We have made progress in Cordele and will continue to make progress in Cordele,” she said.

Other defendants include the governor, county commissioners, the circuit’s public defender and district attorney, judges and others.

Also representing the plaintiffs is the Arnold & Porter law firm, which represented Clarence Earl Gideon in the 1963 case that established the right to counsel for people who cannot afford a lawyer.

To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.

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