Orleans Parish Public Defender Announces That His Office Will No Longer Accept Serious Felony Cases

UnknownMiles_Ehrlich,_judgeAcross 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.

25 thoughts on “Orleans Parish Public Defender Announces That His Office Will No Longer Accept Serious Felony Cases”

  1. Like many problems we face as a society, our elected officials are not willing to allocate sufficient funds, whether for public defenders or for private appointed attorneys, to adequately fulfill the Constitutional requirement that all criminal defendants have adequate legal representation. The problem in NO is just the tip of the iceberg for the failures in the criminal justice system. When I was in law school in the 1970s, I focused a great deal on understanding the criminal justice system. One of the best analysts was Abraham Blumberg.

    When I was in private practice, I was appointed as lead counsel in a notorious capital murder case. The pre-trial work lasted a year. The trial itself went on for three months. By the end of that time, my solo practice had ground to a halt and I had no income from new cases because the trial had consumed all of my time so that I could not take new cases. During that fifteen months handling the case, I received about $20,000 in compensation from the county. I determined that I could never again accept an appointment to handle a capital case if I wanted to make a living in the private practice law. This is true of many other criminal defense lawyers I have known.

    The head of the NO public defenders office is absolutely right to call attention to a broken system, but it will not be fixed because it is not politically possible to do so.

  2. So we need more public defenders and fewer “public policy” attorneys. The solution seems clear.

  3. It does seem that the public defender’s office has set the scene for many defendants to claim they were not adequately represented if judges continue to assign cases to that office. That seems like a smart way to go about this.

    For the folks who are suggesting taking money from unpopular program X to put into the public defender’s office, I would caution that that only works if X and the public defender are funded from the same pool of money. That is, suggesting that federal money be transferred to fund local public defenders is pretty much a non-starter. This likely has to be addressed at a state and local level.

    One option to get the caseload down to a more reasonable level would be for states and municipalities to de-criminalize certain non-violent consensual activities. That would lower the needed funding for the public defender’s office directly, and lower overall court costs and police costs at the same time. (Not to say that costs might not rise elsewhere due to secondary effects, but it would likely be a net win.)

  4. Does a judge have the power to appoint a private practice defense lawyer and order the state to pay the bill?

  5. There is a great disparity between states in how they fund public defenders. CA will spend seemingly limitless amounts of money, while some cases get paid as little as $2000 in other states.

    A right to a fair trial includes a competent attorney. This is one of the reasons why government waste is so frustrating. If we stopped wasting taxpayer money on pork projects and cut the fraud, we could focus more money on the core responsibilities of government. This is one of them.

    1. RIGHT ON, GIRL!! Notice politicians of both parties never touch on government waste. Maybe all government workers should be replaced by computers….

  6. Maybe if all these municipalities didn’t have to pay out millions in settlements and/or insurance to cover their settlements every year for all the damage done by their LEOs, they would have some cash left over to pay attorneys what they need to put on a real defense. This is in the freaking Constitution for Chrissakes. Maybe when the public gets the idea what all this policing, imprisoning, representing is really costing them, they will realize how much better it is to invest in the community before things go off the rails.

  7. This is an amazing and wonderful development.
    The milking and harvesting of resources from the masses, and anyone who want to support them, has reached epidemic proportions, I actually think it is an entropic drift that would likely affect any social and legal system, where power slowly accumulates more and more into a smaller but privileged social class at the expense and resources of the masses.

    There absolutely needs to be more en masse boycotts, principled protestations, and refusal to participate in the rigged systems that are unfair and biased and only serve the existing power structure.

  8. Maybe they should examine the budget and cut out the waste. It’s appalling the amount of waste of government money that nobody talks about. New Orleans needs an audit. Then fire the gems that waste the most and the money found would be amazing!

  9. when you are one of eight lawyers handling 350 major cases, it is doubtful that you can offer adequate representation to every client

    This is logical and true. If you are extended so thinly by such a heavy case load or too many clients in your book of business (to put it into the financial world of business) then you are not going to be able to give each and every client the same amount of attention.

    The question then is WHO is going to represent these cases. The defendants are not in a financial position to be able to hire attorneys. This is why they ARE public defender cases.

    I don’t like the idea of demanding MORE money from the tax payers to fund a separate agency from the existing one for these “charity” cases leaving only the more spectacular cases to be done by the government attorneys. We already are paying through the nose for government functions. In addition a government attorney often builds his/her career on getting and winning the juicy controversial cases.

    It seems the choices are several.

    1.Organize the DAs office better so that there are more people to handle the cases.
    2. Litigate less. How that can be done is problematic, letting criminals go to continue to commit crimes or litigate for lesser sentences
    3. Set up a charitable group to fund attorneys for the ‘charity’ cases. It seems that there would be many people who could contribute to this cause and also get a nice tax deduction at the same time 🙂
    4. Instead of giving BILLIONS of dollars to Iran and other terrorist organizations……spend some of that money here in the United States to help our own citizens, defend some against prosecution and set up better rehabilitation systems instead of just warehousing the convicted.

    But….I doubt that any of those things will happen. What will happen is that the government will go back again to the trough and pick our pockets for more money. Shake down our couch cushions and rifle through our purses :\

    1. DBQ – you could set the Legal Representation like they do in England. Defend one, prosecute one. Split the work.

  10. Why doesn’t some wealthy billionaire or Hollywood donate to PD offices. It would be more worthwhile than many of their causes.

  11. One of the effects of too few Public Defenders is that many are encouraged to accept a plea even if they are innocent. It also tends to be where new, inexperienced lawyers start out. It’s about time the public defenders stood up. Let’s hope more of them do.

    I saw a chart the other day that shows when the incarceration rate really took off into high numbers – would you believe privatization of the prison system?

  12. First, before the system is addressed with more funds, more defense attorneys, whatever, many of the accused who are innocent will have to be ‘proven’ guilty and sentenced to decades in prison or perhaps even executed, many of the accused who are guilty will have to be set free to rob, beat, and murder innocent folks, again, and prosecutorial dirty tricks will have to fester and become worse. Oh, yeah, a few journalism awards along the way. Scrap a few bombers and hire a few hundred more defense attorneys. Or are we still planning on penetrating deep into Soviet territory.

  13. I applaud this action. More wise law administrators will take notice and act accordingly. This is critical to our system of due process.

  14. At 350 felony cases to 8 attorneys you would have no problems raising lack of adequate representation. The Public Defender is right. They need the money and the attorneys.

  15. Politicians often require resorting to brinkmanship to motivate them. Of course, when doing so one must be prepared to be resolute when facing their inevitable retaliatory overreactions.

    A problem manifest with too many elected officials is that they refuse to address difficult and what they perceive to be low priority problems until a crisis is about to unravel, especially when they perceive they will be embarrassed by the matter. I believe the public defender here is forcing that crisis into existence and handing it right to the politicians, along with a very embarrassing condition that only their own actions will inoculate themselves. I think his action is both bold, and cunning.

    I imagine if a judge summarily dismisses a few high profile felony cases due to the state’s failure to provide adequate indigent defense it will serve well to further magnify the crisis when the public begins demanding action.

    Alas, it is still frustrating that it must come to this.

  16. My most favored Polaroid pic is the Super Dome in my rear vision mirror after four long years stationed there. Wife and child shot at while parked in car, daughter beaten on playground, routinely robbed at elementary school (got her over to parochial school, cost a lot..not RC), house robbed four days after we moved in…that was the first yr. You can smell the city from 10 miles out. Just about any bug you can think of. Don’t even walk on the grass in bare feet. Mardi Gras? The flights out of N. O. are loaded with residents leaving. The success of the festivities are measured by the tonnage of debris….it’s true.

    It’s not the money…it’s the place ….well maybe it’s the money…you can’t pay me enough to live there again.

    Besides, defend the thugs and lose? Uh uh… There is a reason why your car is considered an extension of your house….carry all the firearms you want without a license. Pull up to a stop sign with four guys standing around and two start their approach (broad daylight) …just laid the Glock on the dash….no problems. Couldn’t blow through the stop like the sheriff had publicized. A few weeks later an off duty woman police officer shot through her window with her revolver….friend asked if she was going to give chase…nope. She just waited for the ER to report. The “tags” from a butt and thigh matched her gun.

    Red beans and rice, Étouffée, beignets, Commander’s Palace, Jambalaya? If you really need a fix…go three weeks before Ash Wednesday. Cooler and less humid….for God’s sake do not wander off and don’t travel alone. Oh and just figure that if you’re not the first to leave at the first sign of a hurricane….forget it. There’s no way out once I-10 is jammed by the delta folks.

    Ok, ok what’s the difference between Newark and N. O.? Not sure…except for the food.

    Back to my picture…. Good luck hiring enough additional qualified lawyers, even with good salaries.

  17. > Yet, these lawyers are fulfilling their legal ethical obligations not to accept cases that they cannot fully and zealously litigate.

    Well if they want to fulfill those ethical obligations, my understanding of the crowded system and what that does to how they defend people is they should not be defending anyone charged with more than a misdemeanor.

  18. We spend trillions of dollars in Afghanistan to accomplish…. what\? There needs to be an appropriation of federal money for legal defense of Americans accused of crimes.

    I lived in the South and was a lawyer there. That place is like Afghanistan.

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