Across the country, public defenders are facing rising case loads and either stagnant or underfunded budgets. While prosecutors tend to receive ample support due to their popular function, public defenders are often given resources begrudgedly in budgets. Now, the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s office has had enough. Faced with serious ethical problems in handling so many cases with so few lawyers, the office announced that starting Tuesday it would begin refusing felony cases with the potential for lengthy sentences. Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton first threatened this action nearly two months ago but has now made good on the threat.
Colin Reingold, litigation director of the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s Office, said his office is already handling 350 cases with the potential for long or life sentences. Those 350 cases must be handled by only eight of its full-time lawyers who are qualified to handle them. Eight lawyers for 350 of the most serious cases.
The move is a daring one to force courts to take action. Of course, they could just order his office to accept the cases. Yet, these lawyers are fulfilling their legal ethical obligations not to accept cases that they cannot fully and zealously litigate. The courts would have to say “I know that you cannot do these cases in a full and professional fashion in your judgment (and that of disinterested observers) but do them anyway.” These clients are facing life sentences or even death. They have a right to a lawyer who has sufficient time to put on a full defense on their behalf. Moreover, courts do not hesitate to slam defense lawyers for any errors or faults in litigating cases. Yet, when you are one of eight lawyers handling 350 major cases, it is doubtful that you can offer adequate representation to every client. Indeed, just the maintenance of this case load alone would occupy much of your day on administrative and other tasks.
The question is how this standoff will end and whether the Parish will finally act to fully fund its public defender’s office.