High court hands Gwinnett lawyers double setback

ATLANTA - The Georgia Supreme Court reversed a Gwinnett County court's order Wednesday and ruled that the state does not have to turn over documents showing the amount of money spent in the last two years representing dozens of indigent death penalty defendants, including Brian Nichols.

However, in a separate decision, the high court upheld lower court rulings holding attorneys Walt Britt and Douglas Ramseur in criminal contempt.

The two cases stem from the 2004 stabbing death of a Snellville widow.

Britt, of Buford, the lawyer representing defendant Donald Sanders, subpoenaed records from the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council in an attempt to prove the cash-strapped agency was spending so much on certain cases, including defending the alleged Fulton County Courthouse gunman, that Sanders couldn't receive a fair trial.

Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Billy Ray sided with Britt and ordered the agency to produce the documents.

But on Wednesday, in a unanimous reversal, the Supreme Court ruled that the Gwinnett court's order forcing the council to reveal the names of expert witnesses and pay rates from recent capital cases the agency has been involved in - including the Nichols case - "compels the council to improperly expose the strategies being employed by the attorneys in scores of pending capital cases."

The court's opinion went on to say the documents Britt requested are "entirely irrelevant" to the Sanders case.

The second case was an appeal of contempt charges Ray lodged against Britt and Ramseur, a public defender in the Sanders case, for

refusing the judge's order to move forward with pretrial motions.

The two attorneys had claimed that because they were locked in a dispute with the council over funding for the case, to continue representing Sanders would have constituted as a conflict of interest.

In a 5-2 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the charges.

"Their remedy was to appeal, not to disobey the trial court's order to continue with the motions hearing," Justice Harold Melton wrote for the majority.