Cordele Dispatch, Cordele, GA

Local news

January 11, 2014

Lawsuit challenges ‘Assembly Line Justice’ in Cordele judicial circuit

Atlanta — ATLANTA — Poor adults and children facing prosecution in the superior and juvenile courts of the Cordele Judicial Circuit filed a civil rights lawsuit today, N.P. v. Georgia, seeking remedies for the frequent absence of public defenders in juvenile court, the assembly-line processing of adults in the superior courts, and the inability of the Circuit’s three public defenders to provide counsel and advocate for all of their clients. 

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and Arnold & Porter LLC. Lawyers from Arnold & Porter represented Clarence Earl Gideon in the 1963 landmark case that established the right to counsel for people who cannot afford a lawyer, Gideon v. Wainwright. Lawyers at SCHR have long been involved in efforts to make the right to counsel a reality in Georgia. 

“Poor people accused of crime in the Cordele Circuit are not ‘represented by counsel’ in any meaningful way and, instead, are processed through the courts in assembly-line fashion at arraignments and largely neglected the rest of the time.  Children are frequently not represented at all,” said SCHR attorney Atteeyah Hollie.

The Cordele Public Defender Office is severely understaffed and underfunded and its lawyers are required to handle an excessive number of cases. Children often appear in a juvenile court without counsel because all of the public defenders are attending proceedings in one of the Superior Courts in the Circuit. For example, a public defender was at only one of three hearings for a fifteen year-old girl charged with delinquent acts and was not present for the hearing in which the child was adjudicated delinquent. 

The public defenders are unable to spend more than a few minutes per case.  Many poor people accused of crimes meet a public defender who knows nothing about them or their charges for the first time in court. After a hurried conversation, many enter guilty pleas and are sentenced. All but a few convictions are obtained through guilty pleas by people who do not receive the most basic elements of legal representation such as substantive attorney-client interviews, investigations, motions practice, and informed, professional advice about whether to plead guilty.

Poor people accused of crimes are entitled to representation under the Georgia and United States Constitutions and Georgia’s Indigent Defense Act of 2003.  The Cordele Circuit Public Defender is responsible for representing poor adults accused of crime and poor children accused of delinquent acts in the four superior courts and four juvenile courts in the Circuit. 

Until mid-2009, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender received both state and county funding for assistant public defenders.  However, the Circuit’s county governments stopped funding two attorney positions in 2008 and 2009, leaving the office with only three full-time attorneys to handle cases in four superior courts and four juvenile courts.  By comparison, the District Attorney’s office has seven attorneys, with one dedicated to the circuit’s juvenile courts.  Other counties in Georgia provide funding for their public defender offices.

This is the second time SCHR has sued the Cordele Circuit about indigent defense issues in the last decade. Men and women accused of crimes who could not afford lawyers filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2003 challenging the inadequate representation provided by two part-time lawyers who represented those unable to afford lawyers pursuant to flat-fee contracts with the counties. At that time, a number of poor people accused of crimes were never assigned a lawyer; others languished in jail for months without any contact with one of the contract lawyers. 

“Ten years ago we hoped to put an end to the second class treatment of our community by the criminal justice system when the Public Defender’s Office opened, but sadly not much has changed. It’s time for this to end, ” said Membrish Brown, Vice-President of the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and Crisp County Chapter President.

The named Defendants in the lawsuit are Governor Nathan Deal, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council (GPDSC), the County Commissioners of Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly, and Wilcox counties, Cordele Circuit Juvenile Court Judge, Cordele Circuit Superior Court Judges and District Attorneys, and others.

Today’s lawsuit seeks an end to this “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” system of representation, and to ensure that children and adults facing charges in the Cordele Circuit have the benefit of an engaged attorney who will advocate for their best interests.

 

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