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Lawyer files injunction against indigent defense plan

By Ed Brock

A Jonesboro attorney who is opposed to the county's plan for providing indigent defense in Clayton County State Court has filed an injunction to stop the plan.

Attorney D. Lee Smith filed the injunction on Friday, seeking to force the county to turn over information he said was redacted from documents he requested from the county. Those documents include proposals that six law firms submitted for consideration to be the one that becomes the contract defender in State Court.

Smith asks the court to prevent the county from picking a contract defender until it turns over the information he requested.

Clayton County Attorney Don Comer said some of the law firms redacted information on their reports, claiming the information includes trade secrets. The county is taking no role in defining what constitutes a trade secret for the participating law firms, Comer said previously.

Smith said he did not yet know when a hearing might be held on the injunction, and Comer said Monday that he had not been served with the injunction and so could not comment specifically on it.

"We'll see what he has in his complaint and we'll respond accordingly," Comer said.

Comer said he is "very satisfied" that his office is doing what is in the best interest of the county's taxpayers who must finance the plan. He added that to his knowledge Smith had not picked up the packet of information he had requested.

Last month the county sought proposals from members of the Georgia Bar Association in Clayton County and the six firms responded, two of which filed a joint proposal.

Those firms are Lister & Holt, Kaine & Jones; G. Glaves-Innis & Associates; Reed, Scott & Associates; Glaze, Harris, Arnold & Mack, PC and The Fuller Law Group LLC; and King, Grant & Associates, all of Jonesboro.

Two weeks ago Comer's office picked attorneys Melvyn Jack Williams of Forest Park and George T. Brown, Jr., Edwin Stanley Kemp, Jr. and Leon Hicks, all of Jonesboro to be on a committee that will interview the firms.

As part of the "Georgia Indigent Defense Act" approved last year by the state legislature, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council is set to replace the Georgia Indigent Defense Council and begin operation by 2005. The new council will establish, set standards for and oversee public defender offices in the state's 47 judicial circuits, according to the new law.

The new Public Defender's Office will be required by the statute to cover all felony cases, probation revocations and delinquency cases in Juvenile Court and Superior Court, said Jim Martin, chief legal officer for the Public Defender Standards Council.

Clayton County was one of several that had the opportunity to opt out of the state system, but the standards council refused their proposal for providing indigent defense independently. That surprised some attorneys, said Jonesboro attorney Katrina Breedlove.

"Clayton County's was an excellent system," Breedlove said.

The old system used a panel of attorneys to provide defense for defendants who could not afford their own lawyer. There was more accountability in Clayton County's system than in others, Breedlove said, and panel lawyers were required to see their clients sooner than in other systems.

Breedlove said she thinks the county's plan for State Court is "grossly insufficient" and, since the State Court is not included in the Public Defender Standards Council responsibilities at this time she wonders why the county would not leave the panel system intact there.

Comer said the county decided to start the new system in State Court because there had been complaints from judges and defendants about the panel system, including complaints that some attorneys were hard to reach. Also, the county has used a contract system in Juvenile Court previously that worked well.

In a letter, Smith calls the old contract systems "rife with cronyism, patronage and unseemly relationships between judges and defense lawyers."

Comer said previously that the problem with contract indigent defense systems in the past, as far as he understands, came from the fact that the judges in the system were parties to the contracts. That called into question how impartial the indigent defense attorneys would be in those systems.

"Our judges are so far removed from this process that they are chilled," Comer said.