A longtime fixture in the county's legal arena is heading to the Republic of Georgia to help get the fledgling legal system in the former Soviet state on its feet.
District Public Defender Alan R. Friedman is joining the American Bar Association's Eastern European law project as of Oct. 1 for an expected one-year stint, taking his first sabbatical since starting as an assistant public defender in Annapolis two decades ago. His task will be to help Georgians put into practice legal reforms that so far exist almost exclusively on paper in the country that came into its own again only nine years ago. About 95 percent of the trial-level judges have been on the bench less than a year.
"It will be like being in Philadelphia in the 1800s," Friedman said. "It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take what I've learned and share it with people who want to have a free, open and democratic country."
He will work to strengthen lawyers' groups in Georgia, jump-start continuing legal education and help address human rights issues, as well as help organize law clinics and advise legal groups on the representation of detained people.
Last week, a group of Georgian judges and journalists visited the area for two days as part of two weeks of observing the legal system in the United States.
"He will be bringing the law to the people," said Regina Dobrov, whose job includes managing the bar association's $650,000-a-year legal assistance project that began in Georgia in 1996.
"He basically had the type of background I needed for Georgia," she said, referring to Friedman's combination of client representation and administrative duties. He will be based in the capital, Tbilisi. Although the bar association is providing him with housing, a translator, driver and other services, he will receive a small stipend that at home would put him below the poverty line.
Friedman is going to work within a young legal system with many gaps. For example, pretrial release of defendants exists on the books, but the mechanisms to free people before trial are weak. Defendants have constitutional guarantees, such as not having a confession beaten out of them, yet ensuring them is problematic.
But, Friedman said, for people to feel confident in a system replacing the old communist regime, rules, laws and enforcement that applies to everyone must plug the gaps.
Friedman, 48, who is married to Sun reporter Karen Hosler, has been a public defender as long as Eugene M. Lerner, with 20 years on the bench, has been a circuit court judge.
"He is an excellent lawyer who runs a very professional office," Lerner said. "He is going to be missed for this year that he is away."
Friedman has been both a courtroom adversary and policy ally of State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, who is as much the career prosecutor as Friedman is the career public defender. Together, they pushed to create programs such as a drug court that diverts first-time minor drug offenders from court, helps troubled youths and streamlines the court process.
"I'm hoping when he gets over there he'll find out that he needs a prosecutor and he'll call me," Weathersbee said. "I envy him. The opportunity to go to an up-and-coming country that is learning free and democratic institutions and trying to help them with it is wonderful."
Friedman said he would like his experience to start a link between Maryland public defenders and their counterparts in Georgia.
"I'm hoping when I come back that, based on the job I do and that I don't shut down diplomatic relations, they want more of our people over there," he said.
While Friedman is away, Deputy Public Defender Keith Gross will run the 17-attorney office that represents about 10,000 poor defendants a year in criminal cases.