Supervisors approve payment system for attorneys

Published 7:45 pm Monday, March 1, 2021

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NATCHEZ — The issue of pay for public defenders in Adams County got even muddier on Monday.

The Adams County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay seven public defense attorneys $3,000 per month in place of hourly wages or creating a public defenders’ office.

However, one Sixth District Circuit Court Judge, Debra Blackwell, said she will not allow current public defenders Aisha Sanders or Roberta Blackmon to serve in her courtroom.

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Blackwell said she would only pick “the most qualified” attorneys from the county’s list of seven public defenders, which includes Kevin Colbert, Zachary Jex, Jeffery Harness, Timothy Blalock, Lisa Chandler, Roberta Blackmon and Aisha Sanders.

Aisha Sanders is Judge Lillie Sanders’ daughter and Roberta Blackmon is Lillie Sanders’ sister. Sanders cannot appoint either of those two because of the family conflict of interest.

Blackwell also said she would not let Judge Lillie Sanders force who she should pick to serve in her courtroom.

“I thought that I made it very clear that I was going to appoint the three people I thought were the most qualified,” Blackwell said. “… I am not appointing Ms. Blackmon or Ms. Sanders to work in my courtroom. I do not approve of them. I have tried for two years to work with them. … One of them spends more time in my court on motions to withdraw than she does on resolutions to her cases.”

Aisha Sanders and Blackmon, who were not present at Monday’s meeting, both declined to comment for this news story.

Lillie Sanders argued it would be wrong to have only white attorneys serve as public defenders in a majority Black community. Lillie Sanders said she would appeal to a higher judge in the Supreme Court of Mississippi to help solve the issue.

Officials said the previously proposed public defenders office — which was estimated to cost over $300,000 per year plus benefits — would have caused the county to go over their budget of approximately $270,000 per year for public defenders.

While the plan for the attorneys’ pay was in limbo, judges Blackwell and Sanders co-signed a court order in January asking the board to pay attorneys an hourly rate of $100 plus $350 per case. The order was rescinded after the Board of Supervisors filed an appeal saying that too would blow up the budget.

“We cannot keep beating this dead horse. People need to get paid,” board president Angela Hutchins said during Monday’s meeting.

After the meeting, Hutchins said she agreed with Lillie Sanders that there needed to be equal representation for Black defendants.

“We’ve got a district that is probably 65% or 70% Black,” Hutchins said. “I agree that there needs to be more representation for defendants of color.  … I hope we come to a resolution soon. It’s not about us but the clients that need the representation.”