Lawmakers filed two bills in Congress to establish a public defender office in the Southern District of Georgia – one of only three federal districts in the nation to lack such a post.
U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff and Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-5) filed the legislation in their respective chambers. The bill would establish an office in the district- which currently spans from Augusta to Savannah to Brunswick covering 43 Georgia counties across six divisions.
The bill, donned the Access to Justice Act of 2022, would ensure that all 94 judicial districts have a Federal public defender office or community defender organization to “make real the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to assistance of counsel.” The legislation was filed on the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which ruled that the Sixth Amendment required courts to provide defense counsel to those who cannot afford it.
In instances where defendants cannot afford their own attorney, meeting with counsel and receiving adequate assistance is challenging. In 2021, a New Yorker investigation detailed ongoing challenges that defendants face. The piece highlighted the difficulty of access to effective counsel.
Support for the Bill
Supporters of the bill say the lack of a public defender office in the Southern District of Georgia – and other districts – means there is not counterbalance to the power of government.’
Ossoff said of the legislation:
“This is about the Constitution. The Constitution guarantees every American access to a lawyer, but the Southern District of Georgia is one of just three Federal districts that does not offer a Federal defender to Americans who need one. My bill will uphold the Constitution and ensure every Georgian has access to counsel.”
Johnson echoed Ossoff’s comments and said it’s time for Congress to act:
“Georgia’s Southern District is probably one of the worst places in America to be poor and charged with a Federal crime because of its lack of a public defender office. The Access to Justice Act will root out this inequity and provide the kind of representation to which every American has a Sixth Amendment Constitutional right.”
Senators Dick Durbin and Raphael Warnock co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate. Rep. Johnson and Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Northern Mariana Islands) introduced the companion bill in the U.S. House.
The bill also has the support of a number of legal, law enforcement, and civil rights groups, including:
- the Federal Public & Community Defenders,
- National District Attorneys Association,
- National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL),
- Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL),
- Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), and
- Gideon’s Promise.
“The Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ (GACDL) support of The Access to Justice Act is rooted in the wealth of resources and training its passage could bring to the representation of people accused of federal crimes, without funds for counsel, in the Southern District of Georgia,” said Jason Sheffield, President, Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL). “GACDL is confident that the addition of a defender’s office in the Southern District and its collaboration with the local CJA panel of private attorneys, many of whom are GACDL members, will streamline case management, increase access to national best practices, and continue to promote criminal justice for all.”
Click here to read the Access to Justice Act of 2022.