[Pnews] No lawyers? No jail. Judge demands Constitution be respected in Louisiana public defender catastrophe
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 11 10:10:30 EDT 2016
*No lawyers? No jail. Judge demands Constitution be respected in
Louisiana public defender catastrophe*
by Bill Quigley - April 10, 2016
New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter, a former police officer,
ruled that seven people awaiting trial in jail without adequate legal
defense must be released. The law is clear. The U.S. Supreme Court, in
their 1963 case Gideon v Wainwright, ruled that everyone who is accused
of a crime has a Constitutional right to a lawyer at the state’s expense
if they cannot afford one.
Jail cell unlockedHowever, Louisiana, in the middle of big budget
problems, has been disregarding the constitutional right of thousands of
people facing trial in its most recent statewide public defender
meltdown. Judge Hunter ruled that the Constitution makes it clear: no
lawyer, no jail.
In an 11-page ruling, Judge Hunter explained that since Louisiana has
failed to adequately fund indigent defense it has violated the Sixth
Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel and the 14th
Amendment right to due process of seven men. The men appearing before
Judge Hunter could not be represented by the public defender because of
budget cutbacks and private lawyers appointed by the court, who were
denied funds for investigation and preparation of the cases, asked that
the prosecutions be stopped and their clients released. Hunter ordered
the men released but stayed their release until his order could be
reviewed on appeal.
The Louisiana public defender system appears to be in the worst crisis
of any state in the U.S. It is a “disaster” according to The Economist,
“broken” according to National Public Radio, in “free fall” according to
the New York Times, “dire” according to the Chief Justice of the
Louisiana Supreme Court, and facing further cutbacks “on a scale
unprecedented in the history of American public defense” according to
the American Bar Association.
The law is clear. The U.S. Supreme Court, in their 1963 case Gideon v
Wainwright, ruled that everyone who is accused of a crime has a
Constitutional right to a lawyer at the state’s expense if they cannot
While Louisiana incarcerates more of its people than any of the other 50
states, prosecutions across the state are starting to slow down because
of inadequate public defense.
Thirty-three of Louisiana’s 42 local public defender offices have
started waiting lists for those accused of crimes due to office
cutbacks, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court. In some death
penalty cases, there are no lawyers to represent the accused, so the
cases are being stopped. Volunteer lawyers for those left in jail
without public defenders are asking their clients be released.
The problem is that Louisiana refuses to adequately fund its public
defender system, resulting in layoffs of public defenders. The remaining
public defenders who have excessive caseloads are ethically required to
stop accepting new cases, according to the American Bar Association.
For example, the New Orleans Public Defender Office had 78 lawyers in
its office in 2009 and has 36 fewer lawyers today. That office has quit
taking serious cases, resulting in over 100 people with serious crimes
having no lawyer, more than 60 sitting in jail. Four years ago the
Orleans Public Defender had a budget of $9.5 million; today it is down
to $6 million.
Judge Hunter explained that since Louisiana has failed to adequately
fund indigent defense it has violated the Sixth Amendment right to
effective assistance of counsel and the 14th Amendment right to due
process of seven men.
The problem is statewide. Another example is the Lafayette Louisiana
Public Defender, which now has 11 fewer full-time attorneys, down to 15
from 26. Their office also cancelled contracts with 26 part-time
attorneys, laid off two social workers, and everyone who was left was
hit with a 20 percent pay cut. That eliminated 37 of their 52 lawyers.
Vermillion Parish, which employed 10 public defenders, now is down to one.
Although some suggest private lawyers should volunteer or be appointed
to take on these cases, the Louisiana State Bar Association passed a
resolution objecting. They outlined ethical problems to courts
appointing lawyers without criminal experience to represent indigent
defendants and further challenged the constitutionality of courts
forcing private attorneys to provide uncompensated services for those
whom the state should be providing representation.
Volunteer lawyers are also hard to find because those who take up the
work of public defenders are not provided malpractice coverage, will
likely never be paid, are responsible for their client’s files for 10
years, and are held to high standards in representation.
Judge Hunter ruled that the Constitution makes it clear: no lawyer, no jail.
In Judge Hunter’s case, one New Orleans prosecutor accused private
lawyers of being anarchists because they asked for release of people
facing trial until the lawyers can get reimbursed for their costs and
overhead, as the Louisiana Supreme Court has demanded since 1993. In
reaction to Judge Hunter’s ruling, the prosecutor’s office did not
discuss the constitutional issues but said they disagree and plan to
appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Other prosecutors are quite unhappy as well. A Baton Rouge prosecutor
accused the public defender of manipulating this crisis to “get rid of
the death penalty.”
Judge Hunter concluded his ruling with these words. “The defendants’
constitutional rights are not contingent upon budget demands, waiting
lists and the failure of the legislature to adequately fund indigent
defense … We are faced with a fundamental question, not only in New
Orleans, but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do
we want – one based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice,
efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”
Realistically, the problem is getting worse soon because the Louisiana
Public Defender, which last year handled more than 241,000 cases, is
facing a 66 percent reduction in funding beginning in several months, a
drop from $33 million to $12 million.
It seems the only way Louisiana will respect the Constitution is to
follow Judge Hunter’s ultimatum. No lawyers? No jail.
Bill Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and
associate legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. Email
him at Quigley at loyno.edu.
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