Louisiana underfunds, understaffs and overworks public defenders, class action claims

February 10, 2017

A group of law firms and civil rights organizations has filed a proposed class action accusing Louisiana of funding public defenders at “abysmal” levels that violate the constitutional guarantee of competent court-appointed counsel for indigent criminal defendants.

In a complaint filed Feb. 6 in Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court, a coalition led by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights says the state’s “chronically underfunded” public defender system is “in shambles” — understaffed, overworked and “on the verge of collapse.”

The resulting “structural barriers to the right to counsel” deprive indigent defendants of competent attorneys, violating their rights under the Sixth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Section 13 of the Louisiana Constitution, the civil rights groups claim.

“Structural limitations on the public defender system, including the acute lack of resources, endemic conflicts of interest, lack of independence, unreasonably high workloads and lack of supervision[,] create an impenetrable barrier to effective representation,” the suit says.

“Without access to the effective assistance of counsel, the poor stand alone against the full unchecked power of the state,” the complaint adds. “They are denied not only their right to a fair trial, but are powerless to exercise the other fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The suit names Republican Gov. John Bel Edwards and the members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board as defendants.

The two civil rights groups leading the suit, along with law firms Jones Walker LLP and Davis Polk & Wardell, which together already represent a dozen named plaintiffs, are seeking to certify a class of everyone in the state facing potential prison time without a lawyer of his or her own.

400 felonies a year

According to the complaint, Louisiana’s public defender system is so badly understaffed that lawyers often must work two to five times the recommended caseload, sometimes dealing with up to 400 felonies a year, meaning many of them must see an average of two full felony cases through from start to finish every day.

That state of affairs leaves public defenders so swamped that they often do not have time to meet with their clients in advance, investigate potential defenses, talk to witnesses, prepare a trial strategy, file court motions or perform other essential legal work, the civil rights groups claim.

“To meet these obligations, public defenders need resources,” the suit says.

Moreover, more than 30 of the state’s 42 public defender districts eventually had to put clients — including some in jail pending a bail application — on waiting lists last year or turn them away altogether, the suit says.

Judges throughout the state responded by appointing civil litigators with no criminal-law experience to serve as emergency counsel, which the complaint calls “akin to appointing an anesthesiologist to perform surgery.”

Worse, the suit says, some judges either forced prosecutors to serve as defense counsel or stopped appointing lawyers for indigent defendants altogether.

Local funding sources

The plaintiffs blame the public defender system’s inequities and inadequacies on the state’s disorganized and regressive manner of paying for public defenders.

Unlike any other state, Louisiana funds public defenders mainly through local “user fees,” such as parking tickets, traffic tickets and other civil fines, according to the complaint.

Although the state does technically appropriate some public defender funding to mitigate the worst local budget shortfalls, that money is unreliable, the suit claims.

Depending on where they practice, public defenders may have $111 to $553 to spend on each case they work, with a statewide average of $238 — “an amount well below what many lawyers charge for a single hour of work,” the complaint says.

The inadequate funding levels violate the Louisiana Public Defender Act, La. Rev. Stat. § 15:141, by preventing public defenders from living up to professional standards set by the state, the civil rights groups argue.

Those guidelines include, among other requirements: meeting jailed defendants face-to-face within 72 hours and attempting to have them released on bail; conducting thorough investigations and securing defense witnesses, including potential experts; and filing motions and negotiating pleas.

‘Failing miserably’ under Gideon

According to the complaint, the situation is so dire that Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson declared an “emergency shortfall” in late December.

About a month later, U.S. District Judge James J. Brady of the Middle District of Louisiana dismissed a suit challenging the public defender system, saying the issue belongs in state court. Yarls v. Bunton, No. 16-cv-31, 2017 WL 424874 (M.D. La. Jan. 31, 2017).

But even as he decided not to hear the case, Judge Brady assailed what he characterized as unconstitutionally low funding levels.

“It is clear that the Louisiana Legislature is failing miserably at upholding its obligations under Gideon,” he wrote, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), which established the right to counsel in state court criminal cases.

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

A funding imbalance

Prosecutors, meanwhile, enjoy major resource advantages statewide thanks to funding sources that are significantly more stable and robust, such as nondiscretionary annual appropriations by the Legislature, according to the complaint.

District attorneys typically receive at least twice the funding of their counterparts in public defender offices, and “in the worst districts” they enjoy up to five times as much, the suit says.

The civil rights groups stress in the complaint that they are not seeking anyone’s release from jail or pretrial detention. The suit instead seeks an injunction ordering Louisiana, in broad strokes, to fix its public defender system, as well as the appointment of a court monitor to ensure compliance.

The proposed plaintiff class excludes capital defendants because they draw representation from a different pool of “death certified” defense attorneys that is not in the same allegedly “woeful” state.

Allen et al. v. Bel Edwards et al., docket number unavailable, complaint filed (La. Dist. Ct., 19th Dist. Feb. 6, 2017).