A lawsuit was filed last Monday alleging defendants from Louisiana are extremely under-served by the state’s public defender system. The issue with the system appears to be that it’s underfunded. The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Southern Poverty Law Center and attorneys from the law firms Jones Walker of New Orleans and Davis, Polk & Wardell of New York have joined forces with plaintiffs who are claiming the financial crisis is grossly limiting resources. The state uses a funding model unlike any other in the United States, relying on the profits brought in by court fees and fines and traffic violations, which makes resources completely unpredictable.
Under the current system, for less serious offenses, it is often impossible for an attorney to be present. Sometimes those fortunate enough to get representation have to wait months behind bars without visits from their lawyers to discuss case issues. The system has been in a financial crisis for several years with many of the public defender offices discontinuing acceptance of new clients or putting them on waiting lists. The Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bernette J. Johnson, even declared an emergency financial shortfall in December 2016. Unfortunately, however, because the state is facing a large budget deficit, legislatures have been focusing on what they feel are more pressing matters, leaving the public’s perception to be that the state simply doesn’t care enough to get those less financially fortunate the representation they deserve. Public defense attorneys are also caught between a rock and a hard place. Derwyn Bunton, Orleans Parish Chief District Defender, indicated in an interview that he was threatened with contempt of court after his attorneys stopped taking on new cases. He also knew of another parish that began to advertise for volunteer attorneys with “no experience necessary” to fill the void. A draft system was established in some areas, in which local judges select attorneys for indigent defendants. These attorneys are not paid and many have limited, if any, experience defending criminal cases.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana first sued the state after Orleans Public Defenders began to refuse taking on new cases, but this was ultimately dismissed earlier this month due to concerns over issues with federalism. Judge James J. Brady stated the plaintiffs should take their case to the statehouse, adding, “Budget shortages are no excuse to violate the United States Constitution.” The new case was filed by thirteen defendants who would act as lead plaintiffs and it’s anticipated there could be as many as 20,000 individuals in total. Named defendants of the class action include Governor John Bel Edwards, Chief State Public Defender Jay Dixon and members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board. The lawsuit serves primarily as a last ditch effort to squeeze out funding from the state government. It also seeks for the court to appoint someone to supervise the system until the financial issues have successfully been rectified. “This suit seeks to bring long overdue relief to communities that have literally been left defenseless for far too long,” says Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Similar lawsuits alleging financial crisis are being filed in at least six other states.