ATLANTA (CN) – A hearing is scheduled for Monday to determine whether the Metro Conflict Defender Office will close on June 30. More than 1,800 indigent people will be without legal representation in felony and juvenile cases in Fulton and DeKalb Counties if the Metro Conflict Defender Office closes, according to a complaint filed in Fulton County Superior Court.
As a part of a statewide public defender system, the Metro Conflict Defender Office represents defendants in cases with more than one defendant and conflicting interests. Sixteen attorneys and five other employees will lose their jobs, according to an announcement made June 6.
The plaintiffs, who include the fired attorneys and their staff and clients, claim that Georgia Public Defender Standards Council Director Mack Crawford fired them without legal authority to do so, and that the council did not approve the firings. They demand a restraining order and injunction to maintain the status quo 6 months, while the case is litigated.
Budget constraints as well as Crawford’s comparison of the percentage of conflict cases from one circuit to another led to Crawford’s decision to fire the conflict defenders, according to the complaint.
Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Stephen Bright, who represents the plaintiffs, said he is waiting to hear what happens when the council meets Friday before determining how he will proceed in the hearing on Monday.
While Bright acknowledged that the council is facing budget constraints, he said it is the state’s responsibility to provide funds for indigent defense. Bright said an “alternative delivery system” that Crawford proposed for indigent defense is “preposterous.”
Under such a system, a lawyer would handle 150 cases a year for $50,000, which would amount to $333 per case. Another option is to pay lawyers a flat fee of $200 for a plea and $600 for a trial case.
“Conflict defense would really be a joke,” Bright said.
Bright said that if there had been a “fair warning phase,” Fulton County officials could have made a plan to keep the doors of the office open despite the statewide budget shortfall, and that officials have spoken with him about that option.
The Metro Conflict Defender Office, which used to be called the Fulton County Conflict Defender program, was under the county jurisdiction until it became part of a statewide system for representing indigent people, Bright said.
Defendants include the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, its Director Mack Crawford, and individual members of the council.
Crawford did not return phone calls.