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A crisis in our courts
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Forsyth County News
The biblical recitation of the story has it that the wisdom of Solomon was personified by what today would be a matter for the courts — disputed custody of a baby.

Today in Georgia, our courts needs Solomon-like thinking from state lawmakers to resolve what is rapidly evolving into a legal crisis — funding and operation of a public defender’s program for those accused of crime who cannot afford legal counsel.

State officials have wrestled with the problem for years, and unfortunately have yet to fix it.

Forsyth County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley has described the situation as a “constitutional crisis,” and if anything that may be an understatement.

Bagley currently is presiding over a murder case that could result in capital punishment for the accused if convicted. That case has not been able to proceed because of a lack of funding for the suspect’s defense, which has to be financed with public funds.

Most of us have seen enough television police dramas to be able to recite portion of the “Miranda warning” by heart, but few stop to think what it actually means to say that a lawyer will be appointed for criminal suspects who cannot afford their own.

In some cases, like the high profile Brian Nichols case, it can mean the expenditure of millions of dollars. On one case.

The money goes to lawyers, expert witnesses, investigators, laboratories. Our courts have said we have an obligation to provide a defense for those who cannot afford their own — and we do.

But here in Georgia we continue to have problems figuring out exactly how to fund that legal defense.

The pending Forsyth County case has been delayed repeatedly as defense attorneys seek funding. Similar cases exist all over the state.

Earlier this year, attorneys who had agreed to handle cases for the public defender council for a fee of $45 a hour, well below normal rates for most criminal defense work, withdrew from participation when they actually were paid $14 an hour for their time.

The result is that people sit in jails throughout the state without legal representation, or cases drag on forever as defense counsel begs for money to do its job.

The legislature, meanwhile, plays games with allocation of funds, promising one thing, delivering another, as though the issue somehow will go away on its own.

Desperately in need of a Solomon, all of those involved in Georgia’s judicial system — suspects, victims, prosecutors, judges, lawyers — find themselves being tested like Job, with no imminent resolution to this constitutional crisis in sight.