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Posted: April 8, 2014 3:10 p.m.

$4 million to fund conflict-free lawyers for poor

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's governor signed an executive order Tuesday to provide $4 million to cover costs associated with legal representation without conflicting interests for poor defendants.

The order signed by Gov. Nathan Deal moves money from the Governor's Emergency Fund to the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council.

The move comes after the state Supreme Court ruled last year that lawyers in the same public defender's office cannot represent co-defendants in a criminal case if doing so would create a conflict of interest. The ruling effectively meant that many cases must be referred to outside lawyers.

Conflicting interests can arise easily in a multidefendant case, such as when one defendant agrees to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a plea deal.

The unanimous high court opinion upheld a formal advisory opinion issued by the State Bar of Georgia in 2010. The high court found that if a single lawyer would have a conflict, that conflict would exist for all the public defenders in the office.

The Public Defender Standards Council had asked the Supreme Court to review the opinion, arguing that lawyers in the same circuit public defender's office should be able to represent co-defendants as long as appropriate precautions are taken to prevent improper information sharing.

After the high court ruled, council executive director Travis Sakrison said the advisory opinion "could become an unfunded mandate that significantly stalls our momentum to the detriment of our clients."

A spokeswoman for the council said Tuesday she needed to look at the order and talk with Sakrison before issuing a comment.

The state's indigent defense system has long struggled under financial strain, and the Supreme Court justices wrote in their opinion that they understood their ruling could impose significant additional costs.

"But the problem of adequately funding indigent defense cannot be solved by compromising the promise of Gideon," the opinion says, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which said due process requires state governments to provide defense counsel to indigent defendants in criminal cases.

The Southern Center for Human Rights had submitted a brief in the case supporting the State Bar opinion. The group's president and senior counsel Stephen Bright said the governor's allocation was welcome and long overdue.

"I hope this is an important first step in making sure the Georgia Supreme Court's opinion is implemented and that there are no lawyers representing people who have conflicting interests," he said.

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