- Associated Press - Friday, January 15, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the New Orleans’ and state offices tasked with defending people too poor to hire a lawyer after the city office began turning down cases, saying it didn’t have the resources to do its job.

The lawsuit, filed late Thursday in federal court, also slams Louisiana’s system of allocating money for indigent defense, calling it “inherently unreliable and prone to crippling shortages.” It’s the latest challenge for what supporters say is a chronically underfunded public defender system on which almost all of the city’s defendants rely.

“So long as you’re on the public defender waiting list in New Orleans, you’re helpless,” said Brandon Buskey, an ACLU lawyer in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

The rights group is representing three clients in the lawsuit - Darwin Yarls, Jr., Leroy Shaw Jr., and Douglas Brown - who were arrested in separate felony cases and are being held in the New Orleans jail. None of the men can afford attorneys and have requested representation through the Orleans Public Defenders office - as do 85 percent of people arrested in the city.

But the public defender’s office declined to take up their cases, citing excessive caseloads and budgetary problems, the lawsuit says. The three are on a waiting list. The ACLU contends that without a lawyer they aren’t able to investigate the allegations, challenge their bail conditions, file motions to preserve potentially useful evidence or negotiate with the prosecution.

The group is asking the court to rule on whether the constitutional rights of their clients to legal representation, due process and equal protection are being violated. Marjorie Esman, the ACLU’s executive director in Louisiana, said such a ruling won’t get the men lawyers, and emphasized that they don’t want the public defenders to take up cases they don’t have the resources to try. But it would put the state on notice.

“We need the state to understand that this is a constitutional crisis that has to be resolved,” Esman said.

The head of the city’s public defender’s office said officials there were reviewing the lawsuit, but emphasized that the problem is a lack of resources. Derwyn Bunton said the office faces a $600,000 budget shortfall this year, on top of cuts that have shrunk its operating budget from roughly $9 million in 2010 to about $6 million currently. The public defender system depends almost entirely on fines or fees - mostly traffic citations - which make it inherently unstable, he says.

“Our user-pay criminal justice system doesn’t work. It’s inadequate, unreliable and unstable. And the restriction of services is a result of that,” Bunton said. The office has a hiring freeze in place and has complained that the workload for its attorneys is far above the national standards. They’re not declining all cases, he said, but only cases where they don’t feel they have the “competency or capability to handle them.” So far he estimates they’ve declined roughly a half dozen.


Follow Santana on Twitter@ruskygal.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide