UGA School of Law conference to examine indigent defense in Georgia

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Writer/Contact: Russell Gabriel, 706/542-7818, gabrielr@uga.edu

Athens, Ga. – The University of Georgia School of Law is hosting a daylong conference that will focus on Georgia’s public defender system. The conference, “Honoring Gideon’s Promise, Rallying Gideon’s Army,” will be held Friday, Oct. 4, beginning at 9:00 a.m. in Classroom B of Hirsch Hall on North Campus. The conference is free and open to the public; registration, however, is required.

The event celebrates the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that due process requires state governments to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.

Through a series of four panel discussions and a screening of the 2013 HBO film “Gideon's Army,” the conference will address Georgia’s current public defender system, which is now in its ninth year of operation.  

A panel of newer public defenders will address the difficulties of their day-to-day work. A panel of circuit public defenders (the chief public defenders) and a panel of indigent defense advocates will address the successes achieved as well as the challenges still faced by local offices and the public defender system as a whole and the different methods employed to advocate for the continued advancement of Georgia’s public defender system.

The circuit public defenders and assistant public defenders are from judicial circuits around the state – rural and urban, coastal, central and mountain, large and small. Other panelists are from a variety of backgrounds and include Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights; Dawn Porter, a lawyer and the director/producer of the film “Gideon’s Army;” Sharon Hill of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice; and Tim Saviello, a longtime trainer with Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based organization that trains new public defenders in the South.

Porter’s award-winning film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in January and follows three young public defenders, two in Georgia – one of which is 2008 Georgia Law alumnus Travis A. Williams – and one in Mississippi, all of whom were graduates of the Gideon’s Promise training program. Gideon’s Promise, a nonprofit organization, provides not just training but an ongoing network of support for its increasingly experienced graduates and also for chief public defenders.  

According to conference organizer and the law school’s Criminal Defense Director Russell Gabriel, the Gideon v. Wainwright decision is to criminal justice what Brown v. Board of Education was to segregated schools, “except that the states have taken much longer to fully appreciate the mandate of Gideon.”

Gabriel said that in Gideon, the court unanimously held that the right to counsel is a gateway right; it is necessary to the enforcement of the other criminal procedure rights and therefore is a fundamental element of due process, which is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  

In 2003, on the 40th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the state of Georgia created a statewide public defender system.  

“It created a structure of public defender offices around the state – with a few counties opting out of the system – providing legal representation in the Superior Courts and the Juvenile Courts,” Gabriel said. “Now that we are marking the 50th anniversary of Gideon, it is appropriate to take stock of how Georgia has implemented the 2003 Indigent Defense Act, and that is the purpose of this conference.” 

The law school was instrumental in creating the first public defender office in Athens, Ga., owning and operating the public defender office through the law school’s clinical program from 1967 until the creation of Georgia’s public defender system in 2005.

Registration for the conference is free and can be completed online at http://law.uga.edu/honoring-gideons-promise-rallying-gideons-army-conference. Lunch is $10.00 and CLE credits are available to lawyers for $45.00, both of which can be purchased through the online registration. 

##