published Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Compromise sought in public defender-judge dispute

At least 150 cases remain at a standstill in one judge's court today, but a solution that would move them forward could arrive by Friday.

As a scheduled hearing for recusal motions filed by Hamilton County District Public Defender Ardena Garth and her assistants began Monday afternoon, representatives from a local private criminal defense attorneys group asked the judge to delay the matter so they could intervene.

Hank Hill and Rich Heinsman spoke on behalf of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and asked Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman if he would allow them time to speak with Garth, attorneys from the association and the district attorney's office to come to a compromise.

"We'd like to ask the court to continue this whole situation for a couple of days so we can file a motion to intervene and see if there's not some kind of common ground," Hill told Steelman.

Garth agreed, and the judge granted the move. All sides will reconvene Friday to see if there's a new option.

Hill, Garth, Heinsman and other attorneys met briefly after the hearing but declined to comment on details of the potential plan.

Before the hearing's end, Garth asked the judge to remove motions in two of the cases, stating the defendants were not represented by her office.

Steelman seemed incredulous that the motions were filed in cases not under Garth's representation.

Another case came forward in which a woman was seeking release from the jail to move to a halfway house but her case has been held up by the recusal motion.

Steelman asked the woman if she had been consulted about the motion filed in her case. She said she had not.

The judge then told her that he could not act on her case until the recusal motion is resolved.

Following a contentious Aug. 14 hearing, Garth and Assistant District Public Defender Mary Ann Green filed motions to recuse Steelman from all of the office's cases in his court, claiming he was biased against the office.

The hearing arose when Frederick Anderson, a former client of Green's, claimed bias against himself and Green by the judge.

Steelman had removed Green and Executive Assistant Public Defender Karla Gothard from representing Jesse Mathews at the start of a May 2011 hearing.

Mathews faces a death penalty trial in January 2013 on charges that he killed Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin during a botched Brainerd Road robbery.

In a written opinion, Steelman said Garth and Green had a "pattern" of claiming errors on post-conviction, which he later said created ways for defendants to "undermine justice."

Since the Aug. 14 hearing, Garth and Green have filed motions to recuse in an estimated 150 cases, according to the court. Until those motions are ruled upon, nothing can happen in the cases.

Forty-four private criminal defense attorneys volunteered Aug. 24, through CACDL, to represent new defendants in Steelman's court for free while the judge and public defender workthrough the recusal dispute.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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