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Thursday, January 9, 2014 - 11:21am

Human Rights Group Sues State Over Lack Of Public Defenders

State officials are defending themselves against a lawsuit over the number of public defenders in south-central Georgia.

It's the second time in 10 years that the Southern Center for Human Rights has sued over the Cordele judicial circuit, which doesn't have nearly enough lawyers for the poor, said attorney Atteeyah Hollie with the center.

"There are three attorneys who are handling cases in four counties, which includes four superior courts and four juvenile courts," Hollie said. "I'm not sure what law office would be able to do that under those conditions."

Since passage of the Georgia Indigent Defense Act of 2003 the state has provided some money to public defender offices, but counties have had to kick in their own funding to pick up the slack. The amount counties provide varies widely.

The four counties within the Cordele circuit — Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox — each stopped paying for staff defenders in 2009, though they continue to provide other types of funding for the defender's office.

The lawsuit names each county, Gov. Nathan Deal, and the state's Public Defender Standards Council as defendants.

"We think it's unlikely that the allegation will survive the scrutiny of the litigation process," said council spokesperson Cheryl Karounos. "We've made a lot of progress in the Cordele Circuit, and we will continue to make progress in the Cordele Circuit."

At the time of the first lawsuit a decade ago, the Cordele circuit had no staff defenders and only two contracted lawyers. In response to the litigation, state and county officials created staff lawyers positions, and Cordele was seen as a pilot for how similar circuits across the state could bolster representation for the poor, Hollie said.