Yesterday’s New York Times had a depressingly bleak story cataloguing all the problems with Georgia’s chronically underfunded public defender system, in which former state Supreme Court justice Arthur Fletcher made the statement above.  The article was prompted by a recent Georgia Supreme Court ruling that a death penalty defendant should have accepted the public defenders appointed for him by now-resigned Fayette County Judge Johnnie Caldwell after the money to pay his court-appointed lawyers ran out, even though the prosecutor handpicked those particular PDs for him and even though the PDs tried three times to withdraw because they lacked experience defending capital cases or any funds for experts or investigation. 

The Weis case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who in all likelihood will decline to hear it, leaving our public defender system broke and broken until the lawmakers of this state are finally legally forced to change it.  When will that be?  Probably not anytime soon.  The only proposals coming out of the legislature about indigent defense seemed designed to further cripple the system, not fix or fund it.  Georgia’s Republican lawmakers probably correctly assume that fixing the public defender and indigent defense systems is not an issue that will help them appear tough on crime, and the opposition Democrats aren’t exactly jumping over each other to champion the cause.

But someone needs to start asking the Attorney General candidates, the gubernatorial candidates, and candidates for State House and Senate what they are going to do to fix the broken indigent defense system.  I am going to start asking the question if nobody else will. I want to know what Teilhet and Hodges think and will do about it, what Baker and Barnes think and will do about it, what the primary challengers of some longtime do-nothing state Representatives and Senators think and will do about it.  Who will have the principle and the strength to take a stand and push for reform?  If they won’t do that simple thing, from this point forward they will not receive my vote.

If state lawmakers continue to turn a blind eye and rely on the appellate courts to bail them out with bad rulings, they will not only be committing a constitutional atrocity but will also, at some point, push it so far that even the conservatively-skewed Supreme Court will have to stand up and take notice.  Will it take an obviously probably guilty murderer being set free because the state simply failed to provide him with even the minimum indigent defense and speedy trial guaranteed him by the constitution, before state lawmakers finally realize that they can’t adopt willful blindness as their method of dealing with the broken system?  Do we need to continue to be held up to the rest of the country as an example of the sad, backwards-ass south with its blatant disregard for the rule of law or basic principles of justice?

I’d ask if anyone even cares that the system as presently constructed allows people to rot in jail without a lawyer for over 5 years before they can even get into a courtroom to proclaim their innocence and ask for a trial date, let alone face a jury of their peers, but sadly I already know the answer.  Just because it outrages me does not mean it outrages the masses who assume cops never make mistakes and an arrest might as well be a guilty verdict.  But it should.  We are better than we sound in yesterday’s New York Times…or at least we should aspire to be.


15 Responses to “We’re in trouble in Georgia.”

  1. JMPrince says:

    Sadly, no, politics & popularity are seldom ‘irrelevant’, and what the Constitution requires somedays strictly depends upon the very mercurial but typically reactionary whims of the USSC, usually standing upon a slim majorities nowadays too. We mandated the 14th & 15th Amendments after all, and it took all of some 100 years to work up the courage & wherewithal to actually enforce them. Our history is littered with such unfortunate examples. Ask the Cherokee how they fared with Andy Jackson vs the USSC too. JMP

  2. Sara says:

    What people don’t seem to get when talking about these issues is politics or popularity are irrelevant. The constitution requires what the Supreme Court, which is purportedly immune from political persuasion, says it requires. 100% of the country could be against it, but if it’s constitutionally mandated as interpreted by SCOTUS, then implementing it is not optional or up for debate.

    I know people hate lawyers for a variety of reasons, but sometimes this is why I hate non-lawyers.

  3. JMPrince says:

    No, they should teach both, and start with the Magna Carta in 1215 and work their way up. And end their schooling @ 22 or so, freely provided by the state too. JMP

  4. Stefan says:

    If you explain habeas to people without using its name, people are overwhelmingly against it. They should teach rights in Civics and not just what a super-majority is.

  5. JMPrince says:

    “If we want to save money, the option is just to charge everyone accused of murder with 2nd degree and never seek the death penalty…that will certainly cut down on defense costs. But probably won’t go over well either.”

    Well indeed that’s Bright’s point & goal. Which is fine, & he’s pretty transparent about it. Still there’s the political reality here too. The entire ‘vengeance’ bloc outweighs the libs by hefty margins. Everywhere. And yes, that’s got some real & present consequences here & elsewhere.

    There’s likely some common ground to be found, and truth be told the polling is slowing creeping towards greater humanity here. But still, to absolutely outlaw the death penalty for all cases (and yes, that’s what it might take) is a pretty tall order even in historically very liberal states. So we’re at yet another ugly mindless political impasse. I always suggest to capital punishment supporters that we might be able to pay off a goodly portion of the public debt by having public executions televised on Pay Per View. I’ve never heard an objection from such parties to this thought yet. Bread & circuses. Never fails. JMP

    • Sara says:

      As a death penalty opponent, I would love it if they televised executions. I firmly believe public support for the death penalty would shift dramatically if people had to actually see and live with the real consequences of their venegance-minded whims. It’s sort of like asking people who want to bring back the firing squad if they’d be willing to be on a firing squad. I bet the vast majority don’t have the stomach.

      But I digress.

  6. jim nichols says:

    You could hear a groan in the audience when I brought this issue up at a forum in walton county as another in a longline of revenue problems in the state. Republicans really really want to believe we don’t need to raise more revenue. They are doing it to the detriment of our kids, their own quality of life, and basic principles of social justice and human dignity.

    • Sara says:

      Thank you for bringing it up, though. It’s important that we keep reminding people this is not an optional expense–if we want to continue to execute people who are accused of murder, we are legally obligated to provide them with at least a minimally functional indigent defense and get them tried by a jury and through the obligatory one appeal and habeas petition. If we want to save money, the option is just to charge everyone accused of murder with 2nd degree and never seek the death penalty…that will certainly cut down on defense costs. But probably won’t go over well either.

      • Jen B. says:

        We don’t have degrees of Murder in Georgia and you can’t get Life (minimum 30 years) or Life Without Parole on Murder and Felony Murder now. Before, you needed to seek the death penalty in order to secure a sentence of LWOP on Murder. Seeking the death penalty is about vengeance not deterrence or protecting society.

        • Sara says:

          So it’s even more fucked up than I thought. Just great.

          • Jen B. says:

            Wait. There was a small, but significant, typo in my first sentence. Should have read, “ CAN get Life or LWOP.” My point was that if you can get LWOP on Murder, then what’s the point of the death penalty besides angry vengeance?

  7. Jen B. says:

    “Who will have the principle and the strength to take a stand and push for reform?”

    Stephen Bright appears to be the only person because it sure as hell isn’t the Director of GPDSC.

  8. JMPrince says:

    Out of sight, out of mind. For too many. JMP

  9. Jules says:

    Please keep us posted on what their answers are.

    Of course I don’t think they really have any, I suspect all you’ll get is a speech about our budget crisis.