Public Defender Ardena Garth told General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon on Wednesday that she has been too busy going to court in place of missing staff members to interview for replacements.
Ms. Garth was called before Judge Moon after he learned she had left court Wednesday morning to go to a Black History celebration at the old courthouse and after she said she was leaving soon for a conference and needed regular attorneys to handle a number of her office's cases.
Judge Moon noted that Ms. Garth had recently asked for a 30-day reprieve on her office handling certain cases because of the staff falloff. Longtime assistant Karla Gothard is ill and another assistant took a job as an assistant district attorney in another jurisdiction.
Ms. Garth said she had planned on assistant Garth Best handling cases for her while she is at the conference. But she said his wife had a baby on Sunday and he has gone on parenting leave.
Judge Moon told Ms. Garth, "You should have told me you were going to the County Commission meeting. I think it is your ethical duty to do so. To simply walk out of this courtroom and not inform the court is simply unacceptable."
He said that left the court with a number of serious cases with no public defender available.
The judge asked Ms. Garth if it was "a nice ceremony." She responded, "I don't know, sir. I left before it was over."
Judge Moon had had his court officer call an officer at the ceremony to alert Ms. Garth that she was needed back in court.
The judge asked Ms. Garth if she had conducted any interviews for new hires. She said, "I've been too busy covering court."
Judge Moon said Ms. Garth "has time to go off to a conference, but not to interview for staff."
Prosecutor Lila Statom said, "I don't have a dog in this fight, but obviously to get plane tickets and everything, surely that was done before yesterday. She is not the only person who works here."
Ms. Garth said she had not alerted the court earlier about the cases her office can't handle because she thought attorney Best would be available.
Judge Moon said, "Now I've got to try to find 10 lawyers to handle these cases. I wish we had known sooner."
He said, "It is wrong to make taxpayers pay for private lawyers when public defenders are already paid by taxpayers to defend these indigent defendants in these cases. I do not know if I can round up 10 attorneys to represent these defendants by 8:30 in the morning. If not, then these cases will have to be passed at the additional incarceration expense to the county."
He said Judge Clarence Shattuck in another courtroom also would have a stack of cases to deal with because of the lack of coverage by the public defender.