BATON ROUGE — A statewide, class-action lawsuit filed with the
19th District Court alleges that Louisiana’s poor lack
access to effective legal representation when faced with criminal
filed on Feb. 6 in Baton Rouge according to the Times-Picayune,
asserts that this failure of the state to provide effective public
defenders has meant that those in need have not stood “equal before
the law.” The suit names Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, along
with the Louisiana Public Defender Board, as defendants.
The case hinges on the Sixth and 14th Amendments of the U.S.
Constitution, which affirm the rights of all citizens to the
“assistance of counsel” when charged with a criminal offense.
“Without effective attorneys, poor defendants across the state
are left literally defenseless against the unchecked power of local
prosecutors and police,” Mateya Kelley, the Jerry Shestack Justice
Fellow with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,
which is acting as co-counsel on the case, told the Louisiana
Kelley said the system has always been built to fail.
“Louisiana has never been willing to do what it takes to provide
real justice — real testing of the prosecution’s evidence — in
its criminal courts,” she said.
The lawsuit filed with the court pointed out that officials have
long been aware of the state of Louisiana’s public-defender system.
“Plaintiffs support their claim with admissions by the Louisiana
Public Defender Board and State Public Defender and decades of
findings, studies, and investigations by the Louisiana Supreme Court,
the United States Department of Justice, social scientists, law
professors, and government officials from both sides of the aisle
describing the Louisiana public-defense system alternatively as ‘in
shambles,’ ‘chronic[ally] underfunded,’... ‘on the verge of
collapse,’ ‘beyond the crisis stage,’ ‘terrible,’ and
‘abysmal,’” the filing
That the situation has long been known has caused some to question
why nothing has been done about it, and why a lawsuit is needed to
“Public defenders represent only indigent defendants, so their
clients are among the state’s poorest people,” Kelley said.
“Moreover, on account of racial disparities at every step in the
process, beginning with disparate levels of police interaction and
arrest, a disproportionate number of public defenders’ clients are
“On top of that, there seems to be an erroneous, common feeling
that anyone who gets arrested did something wrong. So you’ve got an
affected population of poor, disproportionately black folk, who
people assume are criminals. The Constitution says that every
individual is presumed innocent and stands equal before the law. As
best I can tell, Louisiana policymakers just don’t believe either
of those things and have never been willing to ensure them, so the
state’s courts have to step in and enforce Louisianans’
is asking the court to declare that the plaintiffs, along with “all
persons who are indigent and facing criminal charges in Louisiana …
have been denied the right to counsel and equal protection under the
United States and Louisiana constitutions.”
an injunction preventing the defendants from continuing the broken
public-defense system, and wants the court to “appoint a monitor to
supervise the public-defense system until such time as it determines
that defendants have implemented a system that provides effective
representation for the poor statewide and dismantled the structural
barriers to effective representation which exist in Louisiana.”