NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge has said that Louisiana’s system of funding lawyers for indigent defendants is in crisis, but he dismissed a lawsuit asking the state to find a remedy.
Over a year ago, a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three low-income defendants who were placed on a waiting list by the Orleans Public Defenders Office. It was brought against Orleans Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board, in the hopes that a federal court order would prompt the state to provide better funding. However, U.S. District Judge James Brady dismissed the lawsuit.
According to The Washington Times, Brady said that there was a "serious systemic problem" in Louisiana’s indigent-defense system while stating that the Legislature is "failing miserably" at upholding its legal obligation to provide defendants with capable lawyers.
Yet, in his 13-page judgement he added that if the court were to order the state to fix the system, it would risk becoming the "overseer" of the New Orleans’ court system.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said that the court’s decision had "let the state off on a technicality," and that Louisiana’s "system for funding public defenders is a violation of the constitutional rights of those held without benefit of counsel," reports The Times-Picayune.
Earlier this month, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was sued over the state’s public defender system. Plaintiffs are alleging that it violates the U.S. and Louisiana Constitutions by denying effective representation to poor people accused of crimes.
The lawsuit alleges that defendants are kept in jail for months before seeing a lawyer, public defenders who are overworked can’t provide sufficient counsel, while there have been several instances where people accused of minor crimes failed to receive an attorney.
In a report from the South Carolina Public Radio, similar lawsuits are active in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Utah, Idaho and New York.
According to the report, the lawsuit was brought by The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and two law firms on behalf of 13 criminal defendants.
This is the latest suit and comes after Brady dismissed the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. While it is tackling the same issue, it does so in a slightly different way, in that it is suing state officials, including the governor, on the basis that Edwards and other state officials control funding for the public defender system.
The lawsuit argues that "the insufficient funding for public defense can be traced to how the funding system is structured."
According to a 2014 NPR survey, it found that most states allowed indigent defendants to be billed for their public defender. Those who couldn’t afford to pay the fees or those who chose not to were subsequently incarcerated for failing to pay their fees. They were also imprisoned if they failed to maintain the terms of their plea agreements they agreed to without the assistance of an attorney.