PD council approves settlement
11:27 am, December 17th, 2011
In an emergency meeting via conference call yesterday, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council unanimously approved a settlement with plaintiffs in a class action against the indigent defense system.
“In its current form, we believe that the proposed settlement is a reasonable resolution to this issue for the clients GPDSC represents and the state of Georgia. The issues claimed in the suit have been addressed by processes already in place. The term of the Consent Decree mirrored much of what GPDSC has already implemented and aligns with our future plans, making a settlement possible,” said council director W. Travis Sakrison in a written statement.
Representatives with the Georgia attorney general’s office, which represented the Public Defender Standards Council and other defendants including the governor, declined to comment on the settlement.
A copy of the settlement in Flournoy v. State was not made immediately available, and the Fulton County Superior Court still has to approve it. But one of the co-counsels for the plaintiffs released a general description of some of the settlement’s terms.
“One of the remedies included in today’s settlement is the requirement that the GPDSC hire seven additional staff attorneys to staff the Appellate Division and implement a system that monitors the caseloads carried by individual lawyers,” the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a press release. “The agreement also creates a specific process by which contract attorneys and staff attorneys will be hired—including a thorough review of their qualifications, which must meet certain minimum requirements. And it changes the contracts under which private attorneys are hired by providing them the resources and incentives to effectively represent their clients.
“Additionally, GPDSC must implement a mechanism for oversight and accountability of the qualified private attorneys with whom they contract for services,” according to the Southern Center for Human Rights.
The class action was filed in December 2009 in Fulton County Superior Court by the Southern Center for Human Rights, Bondurant, Mixon & Elmore and several other Atlanta-area firms on behalf of roughly 200 indigent, convicted offenders who were awaiting appointment of new appellate counsel. The plaintiffs’ attorneys claimed that the statewide indigent defense system’s method of appointing new appellate lawyers to offenders claiming ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level was constitutionally deficient and that those offenders were waiting too long while in custody and unrepresented.
However, state officials claimed the system was doing the best it could with limited financial resources and staffing.
In February 2010, Fulton Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter certified the class and issued a 40-page order granting mandamus to the plaintiffs. The case was set to go to trial on Dec. 15 before Baxter but was pulled from the calendar the day before because of the pending settlement, which both sides had been negotiating for weeks.
“We believe this is an important and significant step toward making Georgia’s indigent defense system capable of providing our clients with the representation to which they are entitled,” said SCHR attorney Lauren Sudeall Lucas in a written statement.
“If approved by the court, the improvements guaranteed by the consent decree will lead to a fairer and more accurate criminal justice system,” said Bondurant Mixson Associate Michael A. Caplan.
SCHR contends that since the filing of the class action, the class size has grown from nearly 200 to more than 800 indigent defendants. Meanwhile, the GPDSC, like many other government agencies, has seen its budget revenue decline.
However, state officials argued in an motion filed earlier this year that all the offenders represented in the class had been appointed new appellate lawyers, many of whom are private attorneys contracted by the GPDSC.