U.S. Judge Dismisses LA Indigent Defendants' Suit

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Even while acknowledging a crisis in Louisiana's system of funding lawyers for indigent defendants, a federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit asking for a court-ordered remedy.

         U.S. District Judge James Brady, in Baton Rouge, ruled this week in a lawsuit filed a little more than a year ago by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three low-income New Orleans defendants who were put on a waiting list by the Orleans Public Defenders Office.

         That office and the state were defendants in the lawsuit, which sought a declaration that the waiting list is unconstitutional, and an order that state authorities develop and implement a plan to provide poor defendants with competent lawyers.

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         Brady acknowledged a "serious systemic problem" in Louisiana's indigent-defense system and he said the Legislature is "failing miserably" at upholding its legal obligation to provide defendants with competent lawyers. But, he said the federal court's role is to address such issues in the federal appeals of those convicted.

         He cited appellate and Supreme Court precedent in ruling that the federal court cannot become "the overseer" of New Orleans courts. And he posed a list of practical questions as he outlined his reasons for dismissing the lawsuit.

         "What would happen if the defendants failed to implement the plan? Would this court have to order attorneys for certain indigents? To what extend would this court be encroaching upon the role of the state judges in individual prosecutions?" Brady wrote.

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         "What if the defendants were nominally complying with the order by assigning counsel to indigents but those attorneys were not 'competent?'" Brady added in his ruling, dated Tuesday.

         Marjorie Esman, director of the ACLU in Louisiana, said the organization was evaluating options following the ruling.

         "The court in this decision let the state off on a technicality, but agreed that the Louisiana system for funding public defenders is a violation of the Constitutional rights of those held without benefit of counsel," Esman said in an emailed statement.

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         "We're certainly disappointed to not find a resolution to the chronic failure to adequately fund public defense, we will continue to advocate for the resources necessary for OPD to handle our work ethically, constitutionally and professionally," said Derwyn Bunton, head of the state public defender office.

         The attorney for the state public defender office declined comment.

         – by AP Reporter Kevin McGill


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