Nichols lawyers question merits of DA's suit against judge

ATLANTA - Lawyers for accused killer Brian Nichols objected Thursday to a prosecutor's efforts to have them replaced, arguing in court papers they have established a protected attorney-client relationship 'in a case where the defendant's life hangs in the balance.'

In a filing in the state Supreme Court, the lawyers said they have standing to challenge issues raised in District Attorney Paul Howard's lawsuit against Superior Court Judge Hilton Fuller because Nichols' constitutional and statutory rights are directly implicated by Howard's efforts.

In addition to questioning whether the judge should be barred from overseeing Nichols' trial and seeking to have jury selection in the trial resume after several delays, Howard has asked the high court to order Fuller to compel the state public defender's office to provide counsel from their staff attorneys for Nichols. Doing so would replace Nichols' four current lawyers who are outside attorneys appointed to represent the indigent defendant.

But Nichols' lawyers said in their filing that prosecutors and the court agreed to the four attorneys representing Nichols, and there is no reason to remove them now.

'Mr. Nichols opposes Mr. Howard's attempt to discharge his legal team,' the attorneys said.

The high court has yet to agree to hear the lawsuit or schedule any hearings.

Howard, meanwhile, filed a supplement to his lawsuit Thursday, saying there is no reason not to grant the relief he is requesting since Fuller has stated he does not plan to file a response to the suit and the state attorney general has declined to represent Fuller, citing a conflict of interest.

If the high court decides not to let the lawsuit go forward because of jurisdictional issues, Howard said the court should appoint a special master to hear facts and allegations related to the suit since the trial court would be conflicted.

But Nichols' lawyers said Howard's lawsuit should be thrown out because it should have been filed in Superior Court, not in the state Supreme Court. They also argued that Howard's filing 'is nothing more than a blatant effort to discharge a judge whose rulings and management of an ongoing criminal proceeding he dislikes, and to remove a defendant's attorneys whose insistence on adequate funding for the defense function he cannot countenance.'

'Were this court to allow such an unlawful abuse of the orderly processes of our court system, not only would it upend the basic rule of law as a matter of procedure, but on substance it would decimate the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in this case and in others within the indigent defense system throughout the state of Georgia,' Nichols' lawyers wrote in their filing to the high court.

The defense said Fuller has done nothing to warrant being removed from the case, and they noted most of Fuller's rulings have been in favor of prosecutors.

'The contradictions and hypocrisies in Mr. Howard's 'emergency' petition are too many and too varied to detail exhaustively in this response, and need not be covered to make the overarching point that the court must dismiss it summarily,' Nichols' lawyers said.

They also asked the high court to tell Howard 'that such abuses of the orderly processes of justice are not to be tolerated.'

Fuller has been the target of fierce criticism from state political leaders and even from a fellow judge over his handling of the Nichols case.

State House Speaker Glenn Richardson recently announced the creation of a committee to investigate Fuller's 'poor handling of public funds' and later suggested the House consider impeaching Fuller.

But several other judges and legal experts in recent days have publicly come to Fuller's defense, saying the lawsuit and Richardson's action could affect judicial independence.

The Georgia Public Defender Standards Council has said that because of the amount of money already spent on Nichols' defense so far - $1.8 million as of the end of June, according to the council - there isn't enough money for other cases.

The council has told Fuller it can't afford to pay the defense any more money. As a result, Fuller indefinitely suspended jury selection in mid-October. He later told the lawyers privately he would resume jury selection Nov. 26, but whether that will happen is unclear in light of the lawsuit. Fuller has called a hearing for today to discuss the impact of the suit on the trial schedule.

Nichols is accused of going on a deadly shooting spree that began at the Fulton County Courthouse on March 11, 2005. Four people died in the shooting rampage: Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes, court reporter Julie Ann Brandau, Sheriff's Deputy Hoyt Teasley and federal agent David Wilhelm.

Nichols surrendered to authorities in suburban Atlanta the next day after allegedly taking a Duluth woman hostage. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty if Nichols is convicted.