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Judge Lee's County By Bill Rankin

Judge Lee's County
By Bill Rankin
The grand, neoclassical Coweta County Courthouse dominates the town square of Newnan, Georgia, a bedroom community 40 miles south of Atlanta. With its copper clock tower, enormous white columns, and statue of a Confederate soldier, the courthouse helps maintain a sense of regional history. But nowhere in Coweta County is the feel of a bygone Southern era better preserved than in the court housed inside.

For more than two decades, Chief Judge William F. Lee has sat on the bench of the Coweta County Superior Court. A 58-year-old former county prosecutor and the son of a popular local pharmacist, Lee is a throwback to an age of domineering Southern judges who ran their courtrooms in accordance with their own notions of justice. "Billy Lee," as he's known, is unpredictable on the bench, by turns hostile and businesslike, with occasional flashes of gentility. He can be quick to anger when he doesn't get a straight answer, snapping at those who dawdle to the podium. Sometimes he'll catnap on the bench after lunch, during lulls in the action.

More notoriously, Lee is known to encourage and accept guilty pleas from poor defendants who lack attorneys. Because of this practice, Lee has been named as a key defendant in Bowling v. Lee, a lawsuit filed in Georgia state court in August 2001. Some of Georgia's most prominent lawyers filed the suit on behalf of more than two dozen inmates in the Coweta County jail. The suit accuses Lee and Coweta County's indigent-defense system of denying the constitutional right to counsel and the equal protection of the law.

The sort of behavior that has made Lee controversial is most evident during so-called calendar calls, when anywhere from 50 to 100 defendants appear before him to announce whether they are ready or not to go to trial. Last September, during a calendar call, Yamas Juan Rollins, a poor defendant charged with car theft, announced his dissatisfaction with the defender appointed to represent him.

"What's wrong with him?" demanded Lee, in his nasal drawl. "You're not paying him anything."

"There's not enough investigation," Rollins responded.

"You don't know how much investigating he's been doing," Lee said, vouching for the quality of the lawyer in question. "He's got a lot of people off before."

But critics contend that Lee is not a reliable judge of quality counsel. According to the lawsuit against him, over half the indigent defendants found guilty in his court during the last two and a half years have lacked legal representation. Lee adds to the punishment of poor defendants, the suit claims, by raising their bail if they fail to hire their own counsel.

Lee's procedure in the courtroom is quick and decisive. He begins by asking a prosecutor for a recommended sentence. If the prosecutor offers probation, Lee often instructs the defendant and the prosecutor to step aside�just a few feet from the podium�to conduct a brief negotiation before the defendant has a chance to speak in court. If the recommendation is a prison term, Lee decides whether the defendant is entitled to a contract defender (one of the lawyers who bid with the county to provide legal representation for the poor). Only when the formal plea conversation begins does Lee notify lawyerless defendants of their right to counsel.

Stephen Bright, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit against Lee and one of the country's most outspoken advocates for improving the quality of criminal representation for the poor, notes that Lee's court is expected to adhere to state guidelines by appointing lawyers for indigent defendants within three days of an arrest. He also argues that defendants should be granted a preliminary hearing to test the state's case against them, and that court-appointed lawyers should investigate the defendants' cases and the relevant law and be prepared to go to trial when the time comes. "What Judge Lee has been doing in that court for years has been less than what we expect of any law enforcement officer in Georgia," he says. (Lee has also declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.)

Bowling v. Lee will decide whether the conduct of Lee's court violates precedents set in two important United States Supreme Court cases about the Sixth Amendment guarantee of counsel in criminal prosecutions: Gideon v. Wainwrigh the landmark 1963 case requiring states to appoint counsel for indigent defendants charged with offenses that may result in jail time; and Faretta v. California, the 1975 case requiring judges to warn defendants of the perils of proceeding without counsel before allowing them to do so.

The lawsuit is a test case in a larger campaign to force across-the-board changes in the way Georgia provides counsel for the poor. Because the state supplies only 12 percent of the total funding for the legal defense of poor people, cash-strapped counties shoulder most of the burden. The lawsuit against Lee and Coweta County is the first in a number of cases expected to be brought against counties across the state. The plaintiffs' lawyers in the cases hope to prompt the Georgia General Assembly to increase funding and to institute reforms.

In addition, a number of prison inmates have filed petitions to appeal their convictions and sentences, contending that Lee denied them their right to counsel. George Deandre White, for instance, who is seeking to withdraw a guilty plea that resulted in a two-year sentence for possessing cocaine, declared himself unemployed and indigent at trial. But because Coweta's indigent-defense administrator spotted White and his wife wearing jewelry, White's request for a court-appointed lawyer was denied. White claims that Judge Lee made no attempt at the arraignment to determine White's indigence, refused to appoint him counsel, and told him that if he didn't return to court with his own counsel the next day, he'd be thrown in jail�which he was. There, he finally received a court-appointed lawyer. But at the next arraignment, White claims, Lee told him that if he didn't plead guilty, he would receive a harsher sentence. White acquiesced.

The legal pressures against Coweta County seem to have succeeded already in bringing about some change in the county's justice system. In January, the county Board of Commissioners voted to end its practice of contracting out legal representation for the poor and to create a public defender office�a reform sought by the plaintiffs in the case against Lee. The lawsuit is still proceeding, but the creation of an effective system of public defenders could bring about a settlement in the case. For Bright, what matters is that Lee's court is being ushered into the modern age. "Any officer knows you have to advise a suspect of the right to counsel, the right to remain silent, and to tell them if they can't afford a lawyer one will be appointed for them," he says. "The idea of running courts without lawyers is a vestige of another era."

Bill Rankin is a legal reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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