Louisiana Record

Friday, November 22, 2019

Judge dismisses ACLU lawsuit aimed at boosting Louisiana's indigent defense funding

By Rebecca Campbell | Mar 19, 2017

General court 10

BATON ROUGE — A federal judge in Baton Rouge has dismissed a lawsuit brought against the office by the American Civil Liberties Union that attempted to force the state to change budget inadequacies for those who can’t afford lawyers under court order.

According to a report by The Times-Picayune, U.S. District Judge James J. Brady of the Middle District of Louisiana ruled on Jan. 31 that the court does not have the remedial tools to resolve the funding crisis, despite saying in his 13-page ruling that “the Louisiana Legislature is failing miserably at upholding its obligations” to provide lawyers for defendants who are unable to afford private counsel.

“Budget shortages are no excuse to violate the United States Constitution,” Brady wrote. “The Legislature must resolve the crisis and locate a stable source of funding.”

The ACLU’s class-action lawsuit was brought against Orleans Chief Defense Derwyn Bunton’s office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board on Jan. 14, 2016. The thought was that in doing so, a federal court order would induce the state to improve funding to both entities, thus giving indigent defendants the counsel they need for their cases.

In their initial complaint, according to court documents, the plaintiffs were requesting declaratory relief that their Sixth and 14th Amendment rights to counsel and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection were violated with their placement on the waiting list. The complaint was amended to request injunctive relief in addition.

However, Brady prevented any type of injunctive relief the plaintiffs sought. In his ruling, he stated that while the state has a crisis when it comes to public-defense funding, it did not mean that the federal district court is the “correct forum to remedy this serious systemic problem.” Instead, he added that it is a problem that needs to be resolved by the Legislature.

In a report by The Times Picayune, the Orleans Public Defenders office receives its funding from city appropriations, the state Public Defender Board and a portion of fines and fees collected from traffic violators and other defendants.

However, the report added, reduced local traffic-ticket revenue over recent years has caused financial problems for public-defenders offices statewide, which has resulted in a waitlist for defendants as well as “hiring freezes, lawyer and investigator layoffs and other austerity measures.”

In his ruling, Brady concluded that the federal court had “faith that the state-court criminal judges will do their best to uphold the constitutional rights of the defendants on the waitlist.”

He added, though, that judges “can only offer temporary relief in this crisis” with relief coming only “when the Legislature locates an adequate source of funding for public-defense offices.”

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Organizations in this Story

Louisiana Public Defender BoardAmerican Civil Liberties Union