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Panel will watch public defenders
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The appointed panel that decides who leads the local public defender’s office will get some new members and a new name.


Because of a change in state law, the five-person Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s Selection Committee will become a seven-member board and be known as the Circuit Public Defender Supervisory Panel.


It will review operations of the public defender’s office and report to the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council, the state body that oversees public defender offices in Georgia.


The Northeastern Circuit Public Defender provides attorneys for poor criminal defendants charged with felonies in Hall and Dawson counties. The office is designed to mirror the circuit’s district attorney’s office, with four state-funded senior attorneys and 10 attorneys paid by the county, plus investigators and support staff.


About 80 percent of all people charged with felonies cannot afford to hire private attorneys, but have a constitutional right to be represented in court at taxpayer expense. A portion of the public defender budget also is paid through court surcharges collected by the state.


Members of the supervisory panel met for the first time in more than a year Wednesday, Jan. 27 to go over the Northeastern Circuit Public Defender’s 2009 annual report.


In 2008, the panel voted to appoint Circuit Defender H. Bradford Morris Jr. to a second four-year term that expires in 2012. The panel, which is required for all circuits with public defender offices, also can recommend the removal of circuit public defenders.


The members of the panel are Sammy Smith, Tom Cole, Tom Bishop, Doug Stewart and Graham McKinnon.


The members of the first panel to appoint Morris to the job in 2004 were Stewart, Smith, Bishop, Kathlene Gosselin and Jason Deal.


Membership on the current board is likely to change soon. The term for Bishop, an appointee of former Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, is due to expire.


The new panel will include two members of the Hall County commission, as well as new appointments by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Speaker of the House David Ralston and Hall County Chief Superior Court Judge C. Andrew Fuller.


Proponents of the public defender system say it is saving counties money.


Morris told the panel last week that representing felony defendants costs the county about $385 per case.


“It was about $1,000 a case under the appointed (lawyer) system,” Morris said.


Senior Assistant Circuit Defender Nicki Noel Vaughan told the panel that the local public defender’s office was fortunate to have the county-level funding support it has. Some public defender offices in other parts of the state have little or no county support, she said.


With $1.3 million, Hall County funds the bulk of the office’s operations. About $600,000 is funded by the state and $251,000 by Dawson County.


In 2009, the office opened 3,412 new cases and closed 3,298 cases.


The panel voted Wednesday to send a letter to the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker and chief Superior Court judge requesting that the new appointments to the panel be made.


The panel also will attach a cover letter to the annual report submitted to the Public Defender Standards Council indicating the office is functioning as it should.