Caddo Parish’s criminal court judges must stop ordering the state’s cash-strapped public defender board to fund private lawyers appointed to represent indigent defendants that the parish’s public defenders are unable to defend due to conflicts, a Baton Rouge state judge ruled Friday.
On some 250 occasions since April, the five criminal judges of the 1st Judicial District Court have ordered the Louisiana Public Defender Board to “compensate appointed counsel for reasonable out-of-pocket expenses and overhead costs” in noncapital criminal cases pending in the north Louisiana parish.
The board sued the five judges in May, asking the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish for relief.
That relief came late Friday afternoon when, after a nearly two-hour hearing, state District Judge Don Johnson blocked the Caddo judges from enforcing their funding orders. Johnson also barred the judges from issuing any new orders.
The state board’s attorney, John Landis, said Johnson made the right call.
David Sanders, an assistant state attorney general representing the 1st District criminal judges, said afterward he needed to consult with the judges about whether they want to appeal Johnson’s decision.
Johnson, who has nearly three decades of judicial experience, let it be known he wasn’t pleased with having to rule in a case involving the persistent issue of indigent funding.
“Our state has not clearly articulated and funded what’s needed,” he said. “I’m tired of dealing with this issue of funding. We seem to never get to the bottom of it, the end of it.”
The Louisiana Public Defender Board is funded by the Legislature. The board partially funds most of the state’s 42 public defender districts.
Jay Dixon, the state public defender, testified Friday in Johnson’s courtroom that the board’s funding dropped from $33.8 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year to $33.3 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year that began July 1.
He said the board had requested more than $62 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Like a number of local public defender districts across the state, including the one in East Baton Rouge Parish, the Caddo board is now operating under a restriction of services plan. The Caddo plan included eliminating a panel of private lawyers to represent cases in which the Caddo board has a conflict.
Landis argued to Johnson that the Caddo judges’ funding orders would cause the board to operate beyond its fiscal limits.
“There’s simply no money to cover these orders,” he told the judge.
Landis accused the Caddo judges of “judicial interference.”
Sanders argued courts are obligated to ensure that the constitutional rights of indigent defendants are protected.
Johnson noted he would have taken a different approach from the one adopted by the Caddo judges and instead put the cases of the indigent defendants on hold until funding for their defense became available.