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Wednesday, February 24, 2010 - 7:39am

Judge Orders Public Defenders For Inmates

Georgia's struggling public defender system must provide attorneys to handle the appeals of dozens of convicted criminals who claim the state is denying them their constitutional rights, a judge said in an order Tuesday.

The order by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter requires the state to act within 30 days to appoint attorneys for around 100 inmates seeking appeals. It also allows the class-action lawsuit they filed against the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council to move forward.

Baxter concluded that the state must ultimately meet its obligation to provide legal counsel for the inmates, and it was his duty to order Gov. Sonny Perdue and other defendants to do so.

"Were this court to decline to award the relief request, it would abdicate its own constitutional duty" to oversee the criminal justice system, he wrote.

The civil rights activists who filed the lawsuit, elated at the decision, said they will decide how to proceed with the class-action after they evaluate the state's response.

"The ball's in the state's court, and the judge has told them they have to play ball," said Gerry Weber, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which filed the lawsuit along with several local firms. "Much will depend upon what the state does at this point."

Council director Mack Crawford could not immediately be reached for comment.

Attorneys for the cash-strapped public defender system, long hindered by lagging legislative support and repeated budget cuts, urged Baxter to dismiss the lawsuit at a hearing this month because attorneys had been appointed to 117 cases and the agency had a "multifaceted plan" in place for the remaining 100 or so inmates.

But civil rights groups said the "last-minute onslaught" was only a short-term fix for a more troubling problem that has deprived the inmates - some convicted of murder - of legal counsel for their direct appeals and other challenges, such as motions for a new trial.

Many of the problems arose after budget cuts last year forced the system to cut in half the number of staff attorneys in the appellate division, leaving it with two full-time attorneys and one part-time lawyer, the complaint said. And more than half of the 200 or so defendants seeking appeals lawyers had been waiting at least a year, it said.

The challenge is the latest in a flurry of lawsuits targeting the ailing system in recent years. The system has struggled almost since its start in 2005 with lukewarm support from legislators and an ever-tightening budget amid falling tax revenues