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More money earmarked for public defenders
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Assistant public defender Rose Priddy works Saturday at the Hall County Public Defender’s Office. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Local attorneys representing Hall’s indigent defendants welcomed an executive order providing additional funding for lawyers without conflicting interests.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order April 8 to move $4 million from the Governor’s Emergency Fund to the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council.

Lee Parks is one of the several criminal defense attorneys in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit who contracts with the state to represent indigent defendants.

“There’s a group of lawyers, private lawyers … who have contracts with the state where we agree to take what are called conflict cases,” Parks said. “The public defender’s office can’t represent more than one defendant (in a case), generally.”

Conflicting interests can arise easily in a multi-defendant case, such as when one defendant agrees to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a plea deal.

“When the public defender system first started, they didn’t really have a system in place per se for conflict cases. It was really just on a case-by-case basis they would ask people to take cases,” Parks said. “Sometimes we’d get paid, sometimes we wouldn’t, and then they established the contract system, which regularized everything and allowed us to know that we were going to get paid.”

They are paid $400 a case, he said, barring a more expensive price tag for outside expertise.

Parks said the augmented funding is a positive for maintaining a policy of outsourcing that has only recently become solidified statewide since a Supreme Court ruling last year. The high court opinion was unanimous in upholding a formal advisory opinion issued by the State Bar of Georgia in 2010. The high court found that if a single lawyer would have a conflict, that conflict would exist for all the public defenders in the office.

The Public Defender Standards Council had asked the Supreme Court to review the opinion, arguing that lawyers in the same circuit public defender’s office should be able to represent co-defendants as long as appropriate precautions are taken to prevent improper information sharing.

“It’s not going to affect us particularly one way or the other,” said circuit Chief Public Defender Brad Morris. “We’ve had conflict lawyers for a good long while. We used to do some conflict within our office, and we don’t do them any more.”

“I’m sure it’s costing them a good bit more to do that,” he added.

After the high court ruled last year, council executive director Travis Sakrison said the advisory opinion “could become an unfunded mandate that significantly stalls our momentum to the detriment of our clients.’’

In an emailed statement, Sakrison said he was grateful for the governor’s support.

“The funds provided from the executive order address the dramatically increased need for conflict attorneys as a result of (the State Bar advisory opinion),’’ Sakrison said.

The state’s indigent defense system has long struggled under financial strain, and the Supreme Court justices wrote in their opinion that they understood their ruling could impose significant additional costs.

“But the problem of adequately funding indigent defense cannot be solved by compromising the promise of Gideon,’’ the opinion says, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which said due process requires state governments to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.

In whatever form the conflict situations are settled, the system has to be funded, Parks agreed.

“It’s got to be funded from some source. The whole public defender system has got to be funded,” he said.“That’s one of the constitutionally required functions of government: to fund criminal defense for indigent people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report