Should Sonny Veto This? [UPDATED]

Amy Morton has a post on S.B. 139. The bill, which has passed the legislature, will move the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council from the Judicial Branch to the Executive Branch.

I frankly haven’t thought a great deal about it, but it seem to be a bad idea. The public defenders are, like district attorneys, officers of the courts. They are put in place to honor judicially interpreted and enforced requirements to provide defenders for individuals accused of felonies. They really don’t have any connection to the executive branch as they are a judicial creature.

So why put them in the Executive Branch, which has a primary duty of enforcing laws and not defending individuals accused of breaking the laws the Executive is enforcing?

UPDATE: In the comments, Rep. Lindsey explains the move and points out the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council supports the move due to an inherent conflict of interest in the public defenders being directly a part of the judicial system. He writes:

In a criminal case, it will be for the courts to decide if a criminal defendant received an adequate defense from our indigent defense system. Therefore, there is an inherent conflict of interest for the judicial branch to be first overseeing the operation and budget of the Council and subsequently ruling on the adequacy of its actions.

Thanks for clearing it up and it does appear the Governor should sign the bill.

4 comments

  1. StevePerkins says:

    You just answered your own question. You’re right… absolutely horrible idea. I presume the bill would be subject to judicial challenge of some kind.

  2. Rep. Ed Lindsey says:

    I applaud your highlighting this issue. Our state cannot be tough on crime without also being strong on indigent defense to insure that the system works fairly. The travesty in North Carolina involving the Duke Lacrosse players highlights the importance of a defendant having adequate defense counsel.

    With all due respect to Ms. Morton and the previous post, however, transferring the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council to the executive branch is essential to maintain the long term viability of the system.

    In a criminal case, it will be for the courts to decide if a criminal defendant received an adequate defense from our indigent defense system. Therefore, there is an inherent conflict of interest for the judicial branch to be first overseeing the operation and budget of the Council and subsequently ruling on the adequacy of its actions.

    Many of us in the legislature feared that a habeas corpus challenge in the federal courts would expose this conflict and endanger the system.

    It should be recognized that the Council itself acknowledged this concern and agreed to the switch.

  3. StevePerkins says:

    I’m always glad to see legislators coming out and posting on Peach Pundit… welcome, Rep. Lindsey. I’m still not 100% sold, however. Sure, you can argue that there is a conflict of interest in public defenders being under the umbrella of elected judges who don’t want to appear “soft on crime”. However, is there not the same conflict between public defenders and elected executives… whose campaigns generally focus even more so on “cracking down” on crime? Somebody please name the “pro-criminal” branch of government that could be trusted to never have interests in conflict with the PD’s?

    I hear that the move is necessary to “maintain the long term viability” of the system. However, I don’t really hear any further detail on why that is the case. From reading the bill, it looks like the funding for PD’s will simply be taken out of “this bucket” rather than “that bucket”. Other language in the bill describes salaries as being an a discretionary basis rather than by seniority, with maximum caps put in place. If this will “save” the system… one can only deduce that it because they expect salaries to be lower under executive rule than judicial control. Who was it that forced the legislature to provide funding during the Nichols case crises… the courts or the Governor? Public defenders are already in one of the lowest-paid corners of the legal universe, and driving costs down even futher will only lower the quality of PD.

    The Council itself “acknowledged [legislators’] concern”… and “agreed to the switch”. Doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsenment, or an idea that originated on their side to begin with. It sounds like they want to go-along-to-get-along in order to get paid, after having the crap scared out of them in last year’s funding crises. I smiled at the reference to the Duke rape case, it was a nice touch… but those kids weren’t represented by public defenders. If voters in that income range were directly affected by the quality of the public defender system, I doubt we would be talking about making this change.

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