The public defender of Hamilton County said that, for the past two months, she has been plagued with a skeleton staff unable to meet the demands of a jam-packed criminal court docket.
Public Defender Ardena Garth, in a rare meeting with county commissioners Wednesday, offered her frank take on the situation, describing what she called a "perfect storm" that forced her in January to ask General Sessions judges for a four-week reprieve from case appointments.
"We've been stretched to the limit" because of sickness, the resignation of one assistant public defender in December and leave time, said Ms. Garth, an elected official. "This is what brought us to a standstill."
The constitutional guarantee of legal representation for criminal defendants necessitated the creation of the public defender system years ago since most defendants can't afford private lawyers.
In Hamilton County, as in other judicial districts across the nation, there typically is a cadre of private defense attorneys scurrying to pick up the slack and accept case appointments from judges. The state of Tennessee pays $40 an hour for their services, about double the hourly wage of a full-time public defender.
Still, commissioners called the meeting with Ms. Garth after grumblings by court personnel that the public defenders on a few occasions had not been available because of current staff constraints.
Most commissioners during the meeting simply wanted to know if their obligations to the program were being met. The County Commission is responsible for funding two of 13 public defender positions in Hamilton County. The rest are paid by the state.
"Yes, that need is being met," Ms. Garth assured them.
She said the most pressing issue now is finding the time to fill the vacancy created in December when one of her attorneys took a different job.
The commission has agreed to provide assistance in the hiring process.
"We're not here to jump on you," Commissioner Larry Henry said. "We just want to help."