House panel to consider defender system changes

By BILL RANKIN/brankin@ajc.com

A key House committee on Friday will consider a proposal to strip authority from the board overseeing Georgia’s public defender system.
Senate Bill 42 passed the Senate in February. A House substitute of that bill was released Thursday afternoon.
The House version hands over most of the board’s authority to the agency’s executive director, who is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the governor. The agency’s board would only be advisory if the legislation is enacted into law.
Board members of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council have publicly criticized the Legislature for not providing enough funding to the cash-strapped system. Lawmakers have responded that the board is out of touch at a time when the state is in financial distress.
The House substitute also establishes a new, independent state defender agency to handle “conflict” cases.
These involve multi-defendant cases in which a state-salaried public defender, because of conflict-of-interest rules, can only represent one person. In many instances, private attorneys are hired to represent co-defendants and are paid on an hourly or contract basis.
Because of budget shortfalls, the defender agency has been arbitrarily slashing the bills of these private attorneys so it would have enough money to make it through the end of the fiscal year ending June 30.
The new Office of Alternative Defense Counsel would have its own executive director appointed by the governor, according to the House proposal.
Sen. Preston Smith, the lead sponsor of S.B. 42, has criticized the 15-member board of being dysfunctional.
At a recent committee hearing, Smith said the council’s board has been fiscally irresponsible and openly hostile to the General Assembly.
“It’s time to make a change,” he said.
Wilson DuBose, the board’s chairman, asked the House committee to maintain the board authority.
“Even though we work for free, we have devoted thousands of hours to do all we can to make this system work,” DuBose said.
DuBose said the council’s board has never asked the Legislature for unlimited funding – only enough to allow the system to provide constitutionally acceptable representation of the poor.
“We have never taken the position that we must provide…an O.J. Simpson defense,” DuBose said. “Even in our wildest dreams, we have never considered such an approach.”

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