In recent months, the Southern Center for Human Rights has received complaints from both clients of and staff attorneys at the Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office. Both groups describe an under-resourced office stretched so thin that many indigent defendants receive “representation” only in the most theoretical sense.
Staff attorneys at the public defender office are required to handle excessive caseloads. Many do so, moreover, with no dedicated office space, no computers, and no access to office telephones, printers, or other necessary supports that are indispensable for the practice of law. Inadequate staffing, underfunding, and a lack of oversight further undermine the public defender office’s ability to provide the quality of legal representation required by the U.S. Constitution.
Staff attorneys at the public defender office handle too many cases. Several staff attorneys report that they represent people in between 500 and 1,000 cases per year, excluding first appearances hearings. These reported numbers substantially exceed the maximum annual misdemeanor caseload limit for full-time attorneys recognized by the American Bar Association1 and other states. Indeed, some staff attorneys report handling double the recommended number of cases.
Inadequate Work Space
To our knowledge, the County provides three total office spaces for the public defender’s 18 attorneys and their support staff. One office belongs to the managing attorney, and another is assigned to the chief assistant public defender. The rest of the office’s staff, including seventeen lawyers and three non-attorney personnel, are assigned to the third office, a small room that has space for only three desks. Each desk has a desktop computer and a phone (although one of the phones does not function properly). One of the desks is assigned to the office manager, leaving two desks for the office’s seventeen staff attorneys. Pictures of this office are below. In the first picture, a water leak covers parts of the office floor.
Because staff attorneys do not have office space or office phones, many are required to rely on their personal cellphones to reach clients and handle other case-related matters. Others rely on messages tacked to a corkboard in the office, a system that wrongly assumes attorneys come to the office regularly when in fact, many do not because 1) there is nowhere to work in the office and 2) they are in court almost daily. Some staff attorneys report that there is only one cubicle available for their use.
Moreover, some staff attorneys report that they have waited months, and in some cases years, to receive a state- or county-issued laptop, while others have yet to receive a work computer. Others report that malfunctioning office printers and copiers sometimes compel them to print case-related documents at home.
The public defender’s office has one managing attorney and seventeen full-time staff attorneys responsible for representing indigent defendants accused of misdemeanors in ten state trial courts, three magistrate courts, and three accountability courts located throughout Fulton County. Each staff attorney is assigned to multiple courts at a time: they “must cover both trial courts, the magistrate courts, prepare for trials, and serve as duty defenders when not in court or preparing for trial.” The frequency of proceedings across courts requires staff attorneys to be in court almost every day of the week. Some staff attorneys report that they are in court four or five days a week, making it impossible for them to devote adequate time to their cases, files case-specific motions, research legal issues, and perform other basic duties of an attorney.
The Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender Office has many hardworking lawyers and administrative staff committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of poor people accused of crime. Their dedication and commitment are to be lauded. But even the most well-intentioned lawyer cannot effectively work under the conditions described.
The Southern Center has sent a letter detailing the above issues — and more — to the Executive Director and State Level Services Director of the Georgia Public Defender Council, the Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, and the Managing Public Defender for Fulton County State and Magistrate Court Public Defender, requesting steps be taken to remedy these problems.