Circuit Public Defender Responds to My Post

A Circuit Public Defender attempted to comment on a recent post of mine. For some reason, it never cued up for moderation. So, I am posting his comment here. I’ll likely respond this week when I dig my way out of this brief I am writing.

I’m not sure you have all of the facts and I’d appreciate an opportunity to
make some observations and clarifications.

For instance, the reason the AG’s Office was representing the public
defenders is because . . . the AG’s Office always represents every executive
agency and GPDSC is an executive agency. Hardly a surprise, a secret, or a
sign of skulduggery.

Also, every single prior appellate decision in Georgia that has dealt with
the issue has recognized that a public defender’s office is NOT the same as
a private law firm because public defenders do not have a financial interest
in the outcome of their cases and so the imputed conflict rule doesn’t apply
as long as ethical screens are in place to preserve confidentiality. (That
was the state bar’s own opinion in 2007, see Proposed Formal Advisory
Opinion No. 07-R1.) It’s the State Bar’s Formal Advisory Board, in a
star-chamber proceeding in 2010 that the public was not able to attend, that
came up with brand new idea that the imputed conflict rule applies to public
defenders.  (Heck, I’m dues-paying member of the bar and I was denied entry
to the proceeding because I wasn’t a member of that particular board–no
public defender is a member I believe although there is a district
attorney).

At that closed board meeting in 2010, this new rule was dreamed up under the
incorrect and frankly insulting assumptions that public defenders care about
anything other than their own client, that public defender supervisors
choose sides in multiple-defendant cases, that public defenders snoop around
in each other’s offices, and, perhaps most significantly, that conflict
lawyers from other towns who are not full-time dedicated public defenders
can get as good a result as quickly as the full-time public defender who
works with the same judges and the same prosecutors in the same courtroom
all the time can get. (Remember, most of Georgia is not like Atlanta; when
we have to send a case out of the office, we often have to send it to
lawyers that are far away and do not get our “home cooking” in court.) A
very wise career public defender once pointed out that, every time we have
to send a case out of the office, we are doing that client a disservice.

Oh, and last but not least–the young statewide public defender system has
been rocked by budget shortfalls since we started operations on January 1,
2005 and the legislature has seemed close to getting rid of it entirely and
going back to the patchwork county based public defender system several
times. So, when the State Bar comes up with a brand new rule that imposes
new restrictions on public defenders and which is at odds with the rule in
most other states, criticize single prior appellate opinion in Georgia, AND
the State Bar’s own 2007 opinion, and when that brand new rule is going to
cost so much money that it increases the odds that the legislature will
scrap the statewide public defender system, yeah, in those circumstances you
will find public defenders opposing the State Bar.  Not because we are
dedicated to the organization itself. No, because we are dedicated to the
goals of the organization. To the extent that imposing this new and
unnecessary rule taken from a minority of other states even slightly
increases the chances that the legislature will scrap the system, it’s a bad
rule for the indigent defendants in Georgia.

Now, I do understand that many if not most lawyers disagree with my position
so, no matter which way the Supreme Court decides to go, I’ll be happy to
comply and I’ll just hope that the legislature doesn’t carry through on the
many threats to throw public defense back to the counties. But I do take
issue when someone from outside the public defender world undertakes to
criticize one of my colleagues for suggesting that the rule the majority of
states follow is also the rule we should follow.

Thanks for your consideration,

Sam Merritt
Circuit Public Defender
Southwestern Circuit

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