But attorneys representing the plaintiffs said the "last-minute onslaught" by the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, which was disclosed to them Thursday as they were preparing for a Friday hearing, was a short-term fix of a deeper, more troubling problem.
"Are we pleased with this 11th hour change of heart? Certainly," said Gerry Weber, an attorney representing the convicts. "But does it fix the problem? No. This is a Band-Aid."
State attorneys countered by asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit now that attorneys have been appointed to 117 cases. DeBrae Kennedy, a state attorney, added that the office has a "multifaceted plan in place" to assign attorneys to the remaining cases, believed to range from 75 to 100 more defendants.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has not yet issued a ruling on whether the lawsuit can move forward.
The lawsuit contends the state failed to provide the convicted defendants with legal counsel for their direct appeals and other challenges, such as motions for a new trial. Supporters of the case, filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights and several Georgia law firms, said when it was filed in December that it was the first of its kind in the state.
It is one of a flurry of legal challenges filed in recent years targeting the public defender system, which has struggled almost since its start in 2005 with lagging support from legislators and an ever-tightening budget amid falling tax revenues.
The lawsuit claimed the latest round of budget cuts last year forced the system to cut the number of staff attorneys for the appellate division in half, leaving it with two full-time attorneys and one part-time lawyer.
More than half of the 200 or so defendants seeking appeals lawyers have been waiting for at least a year, and one defendant's case has languished since 2002, according to the lawsuit. And plaintiff's attorney Michael A. Caplan said the number continues to swell by about 20 each month.
"Any budgetary argument that is made is totally irrelevant to this case," he told the judge. "The question is whether these defendants met their obligation to provide indigent defendants with counsel."
Kennedy, though, said the public defender system is still determined to ensure that every indigent defendant receives legal counsel. The budget cuts that have hamstrung the agency may mean delays for some defendants, she said, but they will still get attorneys to handle their appeals.
"No one's rights have been jeopardized," said Kennedy.