Lawsuit claims Georgia agency deliberately withholding public records

The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed a lawsuit against the state related to issues involving Georgia’s ability to represent indigent defendants. Part 10 of ‘The Sixth.’
The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed a lawsuit over Georgia’s ability to represent indigent defendants. Part 10 of 'The Sixth.'
Published: Jun. 5, 2023 at 5:34 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 6, 2023 at 8:35 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) -A civil rights organization filed a lawsuit on Monday alleging a Georgia agency is breaking the law.

In a lawsuit filed in Fulton County, The Southern Center for Human Rights is accusing the Georgia Public Defender Council (GPDC) of deliberately withholding public records it says identifies how many people accused of crimes, many detained in jails, who do not have a court-appointed attorney.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees people accused of crimes the right to an attorney if they can’t afford one. The Defender Council is the state agency statutorily responsible for appointing lawyers to indigent defendants in Georgia.

The Sixth: A series about your constitutional right to an attorney

The 6th amendment of the U.S. constitution guarantees the right to an attorney. This series of Atlanta News First Investigates’ reports are part of an ongoing series about this constitutionally-guaranteed access to legal representation in court, and the challenges that arise when the supply of defenders is limited.

InvestigateTV traveled the country to shed light on a constitutional crisis eroding the...

“The consequences are very severe when people go unrepresented in their criminal cases,” said Maya Chauduri, an attorney with the Atlanta-based civil rights organization.

According to the lawsuit, the center claims the Defender Council is knowingly violating the Georgia Open Records Act by charging unreasonable fees, delaying the production of records, improperly withholding records, and failing to produce all responsive records, including complete lists of persons awaiting the appointment of council.

“Right now, there are hundreds of people across Georgia who are languishing in jail for months and sometimes years without representation,” Chauduri said. “This is a serious violation of people’s constitutional rights that is only going to get worse as the number of these prosecutions increase.”

“GPDC follows the law when responding to all requests for records. SCHR routinely submits requests for voluminous and duplicative datasets and records requiring significant administrative time to fulfill,” a council spokesperson said. “We believe that this is a frivolous complaint aimed at diverting the Agency’s resources from its clients and redirecting those financial resources to SCHR through attorney’s fees and donor solicitations. These claims are without merit, and we look forward to fully and vigorously litigating this matter in court.”

One example cited in the lawsuit includes Maurice Jimmerson, currently charged with a 2013 double murder in Dougherty County. He’s qualified for a court-appointed attorney for years. When the Southern Center requested all names of individuals appointed or seeking a lawyer from the agency earlier this year, Jimmerson wasn’t on the list.

The 32-year-old has spent more than a decade behind bars waiting for trial. Atlanta Attorney Andrew Fleischman now represents Jimmerson pro-bono after seeing his story on Atlanta News First in April.

“We should not punish people until we’ve proven they’ve committed a crime.” said Fleischman.

The lawsuit also alleges the agency stopped complying with the state’s open records act after increased media scrutiny this year, citing multiple Atlanta News First investigations in the complaint.

Last year, records obtained by the Defender Council revealed more than 600 people charged with crimes who did not have attorney in Georgia.

This is a special group of accused because they need what’s known as conflict and C3 attorneys: private lawyers certified to represent indigent defendants on the state’s behalf when it involves multiple defendants accused in the same crime.

When the Southern Center recently requested updated numbers, the agency allegedly claimed those same records no longer exist.

“None of this is in compliance with the act,” Chauduri said. “The Georgia Public Defender Council, has violated almost every requirement of the act that applies to them.”

The complaint also claims the agency charged duplicate fees for the same records provided to Atlanta News First and the Southern Center on the same day. The request involved all communication and invoices between the agency and a company hired to provide public relations services.

This is the fourth time in about 20 years the civil rights organization has filed a lawsuit against Georgia related to issues involving the state’s ability to represent indigent defendants.

This story is part of a series about the constitutionally-guaranteed access to legal representation in court, and the challenges that arise when the supply of defenders is limited. Part one in the series looks at defendants’ desperate need for representation. Part two covers judges forced to take actions that may erode the public’s trust in the judicial system. In part three, former public defenders explain why they left the job. Part four looks at the search for solutions. Part five shows the agency’s director admits to lawmakers the Defender Council doesn’t have enough attorneys. Part six explains why the Defender Council does not want to pay for investigative resources for an indigent defendant. Part seven explains why a man has been behind bars for 10 years waiting for his day in court. Part eight reveals how the state agency has spent thousands on improving its image after ANF investigations. Part nine brings viewers up to date in the case of Maurice Jimmerson, the inmate profiled in part seven.

If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Investigative Reporter Andy Pierrotti to look into, email

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