Sometimes I think that if it weren’t for Georgia and Justice Thomas, I wouldn’t have much to blog about. Having fulfilled the Thomas quota for the night, I now move on to that rotten peach of a state, which seems to be continually perplexed at the existence of the thing called “the indigent defendant” and completely at a loss to deal with them and their pesky “constitutional” rights.

Why just yesterday, the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case where the issue, as framed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was:

whether the state’s public defender system can ethically provide and — and also afford — conflict-free representation for thousands of indigent clients.

Go ahead, shed that tear. More, from the concisely named GeorgiaCriminalAppellateLawBlog (a LexBlog production, natch):

So, it came to pass that Michael Edwards, the leader of a circuit public defender’s office in South Georgia came to oral argument at the Supreme Court yesterday where he sat at the same table with an Assistant Attorney General, a prosecutor. Both the prosecutor and the the “public defender” appeared as co-counsel to argue against a bar rule regarding imputed conflicts in the representation of the poor.

What is this cataclysmic event that brought the two sides together? An ethics opinion [PDF], opining rather uncontroversially that:

Lawyers employed in the circuit public defender office in the same judicial circuit may not represent co-defendants when a single lawyer would have an impermissible conflict of interest in doing so.

In plain-speak-ese, if you – an individual lawyer – can’t represent co-defendants at the same time due to a conflict of interest, then neither can anyone else from your office. Not groundbreaking, not so far beyond the pale that it required the unholy union of a public defender and an attorney general.

The United States Supreme Court has long maintained that “a criminal defendant is entitled to be represented by an attorney free from conflicts of interest”. Wood v. Georgia, Strickland v. Washington, Cuyler v. Sullivan…I could go on and on. In fact, I can’t think of an ethical duty that is more important for the criminal defense attorney than this one to provide conflict-free representation. Just as the prosecutor’s duty is to seek justice (go ahead, chortle), ours is to our client and only to our client.

Yet it is this very duty that seems to give defense attorneys the most trouble. It is this unambiguous, bright line, don’t-touch-with-someone-else’s-10-foot-pole duty that somehow turns into a jumbled, confusing incomprehensible mess when it works its way through the neurons of public defender officials. It was this precise issue that the Connecticut Appellate Court considered last October (albeit erroneously concluding there wasn’t a conflict).

How then, given the Constitutional right and the ethical obligation, could the public defender’s office argue that it shouldn’t be required to provide this conflict-free resolution? The answer, as always, is money.

Stunningly, the explanation from the Georgia public defender isn’t that the right doesn’t exist, but that he can’t afford to provide it:

Mr. Edwards pointed out that he can’t afford to engage in egg-headed “philosophical” or “academic” discussions as a GPDSC bureaucrat. He has to be pragmatic about all this. We can’t afford to get off on this business about right and wrong. If you want conflict-free representation, then either stop getting accused of crime or stop being poor.

He didn’t say that last bit, but he might as well have. Public defenders have enough of a PR problem as it is. Siding with the state on whether to provide our clients conflict-free representation isn’t really helping our cause.

Look, I get it. There is only so much money and there are only so many resources. The answer, however, isn’t to capitulate and argue that our clients should be entitled to conflict-free-ish representation, but instead to do what we’re supposed to: stand up for our clients and demand the State to adequately fund the prosecutions they seem so happy to initiate. If, in this no-brainer of a situation, we public defenders take positions that are clearly contrary to our clients’ interests, then is it any wonder that they refuse to trust us and call us pawns of the prosecution?

The duty isn’t ambiguous or predicated on the availability of funds. Free isn’t free-ish.

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