The Fulton County Superior Court is using COVID-19 relief to address share of the statewide public defender shortage in multi-defendant cases.
“We are proud to have been able to roll this out in a relatively short period of time, and we are grateful to the county for their willingness to fund…” Chief Justice Christopher Brasher said, delivering justice. , the pandemic case backlog.
Disadvantaged defendants in criminal cases are usually entitled to free attorneys provided through public defender offices. However, the situation becomes complicated when multiple defendants need public counsel and testify against each other or provide competing defenses. In such cases, it would be unethical for the public defender to represent all competing defendants. For the second defendant, many court districts offer a separate back-up system (locally known as the Atlanta Metro Conflict Defenders’ Office), providing an attorney wholly separate from the public defense. . If there are three or more such defendants, in a so-called C-3 case, you must find an attorney who is not affiliated with any of these firms.
The C-3 case is less common. Brasher estimates that about 120 such clients are awaiting defense in Fulton Superior Court. That said, it is necessary and can be difficult to achieve.
“Finding enough lawyers for C-3 cases is actually kind of a statewide problem,” said Thomas O’Connor, spokesman for the Georgia Public Defense Council (GPDC). I was. of the county court system.
O’Connor cites a tight labor market, rising private sector salaries, pandemic backlogs, and prosecutors increasingly pursuing gang prosecutions that could lead to cases involving numerous accomplices. I was.
As a side issue, according to O’Connor, such contract attorneys drop out of lawsuits at the last minute, “in some cases, after payment has been made,” without providing a replacement attorney. That’s it. Lack of substitutions should not be allowed by judges, he said, but sometimes it is.
Fulton stands out as the largest county in Georgia, covering most of Atlanta. “We recognize that Fulton is the busiest and most active judicial circuit, and they have unique needs in that respect,” said O’Connor.
In November 2021, the GPDC increased hourly wages for so-called dispute attorneys in such cases and will do so again this fall, he said.
But in Fulton’s case, court administrators determined the situation was dire and obtained permission from the county government to spend a portion of $75 million in Federal American Rescue Plan funds on hiring a C-3 attorney. Fees range from $80 to $140 an hour, depending on the attorney’s experience and type of case, which is beyond what the GPDC currently covers.
Brasher said the GPDC is facing a “perfect storm” that has made it difficult to find C-3 lawyers and other public defense counsel. “They have money to spend,” he said. “They can’t spread it, they can’t get and keep the people they need. At this point, demand is outstripping supply.”
That’s why Brasher said the Fulton Superior Court aimed to use federal funds, rather than “fight that battle at the state level.” He said he did not yet know what portion of the money pie the C-3 lawyers would consume because of the nature of the money.
O’Connor said the GPDC spent about 18 months with the Fulton Superior Court discussing the issue and a possible agreement to increase the number of available attorneys before the government chooses to move forward with federal funding. “We are aware of the problem and want to work together to address it,” he said.
Brasher said the demand for justice and clearing the pandemic backlog requires swift action.
“First of all, there is an unrepresented defendant…” he said. “Some go back and forth between multiple lawyers and don’t have lawyers. I needed it.
“From a systemic point of view, the system stops,” he added. Because if the defendant does not have an attorney, he cannot proceed with the case. A delay could risk violating a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, he said. , “often brought to trial,” he said.
The Fulton Superior Court has begun recruiting C-3 attorneys through the Bar Association and other attorney groups. More than 20 attorneys have filed so far, he said, Brasher, but the call for the case is still open starting next week.To view the application, click here. .