Forty-four private attorneys have offered to represent criminal defendants for free in place of the public defender's office, which has asked a local judge to recuse himself.
On Friday, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman assigned at least five cases that normally would have gone to the public defender's office to private attorneys who offered to take them pro bono, or free of charge.
Bill Speek and Clancy Covert, two of the attorneys who took cases Friday, said indigent defendants who normally would be appointed an attorney from the public defender's office are having to wait until recusal motions are resolved before anything can happen with their cases. In some instances, defendants with misdemeanor charges could serve more time in custody awaiting these resolutions than they would after an agreement and guilty plea, Speek said.
"The ironic thing is, as attorneys looking out for the rights of these defendants, we're taking cases for free while there are attorneys in the public defender's office being paid by the state to handle these cases who are not taking any new ones," Speek said.
Last week, Hamilton County District Public Defender Ardena Garth began filing motions asking Steelman to recuse or reassign cases from her office in his court.
The office represents indigent cases unless there is a conflict, then a private attorney is appointed and paid $40 an hour for out-of-court work and $50 an hour for in-court work. Most nonfelony cases pay a maximum of $1,000, according to Tennessee Supreme Court rules.
Hank Hill, speaking on behalf of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the group's members sought lawyers to volunteer for this free work to "make sure the courts and those who can't afford representation are aware we're willing to help."
Hill, who has worked both at the public defender's office and in private practice for decades, said he'd "never seen anything like" the outpouring of attorneys offering free assistance.
Hill provided a list of 41 attorneys who volunteered through the lawyers group, and three more names were added to Steelman's list Friday.
Garth's motions against Steelman grew out of a heated Aug. 14 hearing in which a criminal defendant accused Steelman of bias against him and his trial attorney, Assistant Public Defender Mary Ann Green.
In court filings, Green and Garth have claimed Steelman is biased against the public defender's office, citing a seven-page opinion Steelman issued when he appointed two private attorneys to represent defendant Jesse Mathews in a May 2011 hearing.
Mathews awaits a death penalty trial next year on charges that he killed Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin during a botched robbery on April 2, 2011.
In the opinion, Steelman details past cases in which Green and Executive Assistant Public Defender Karla Gothard had claimed mistakes on post-conviction cases, which Steelman later said "undermined justice" and had to stop.
Garth and Green's motions accuse Steelman of creating a "hostile" work environment and creating the impression that he cannot remain impartial in their cases.
Both Steelman and Garth have declined to comment publicly on the current dispute. A hearing on the recusal motions is scheduled for Monday.
All attorneys interviewed for this story said the amount of pro-bono work hinges on what happens in the hearing, and added that the setup shouldn't be in place longer than necessary.
"It certainly should be a short-term solution," Hill said. "Maybe with a little release of the pressure, cooler heads will prevail."