After an Orleans Parish judge called a special hearing at which experts testified that the city’s Public Defenders Office is stretched so thin that it can’t do justice to its poor clients, the judge ruled Monday that he won’t do anything about it, at least for now.
In a one-page ruling, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter declined to grant a request by Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office to stop assigning it new cases.
Nor did Hunter agree to take any other action, despite his history of flashy statements to highlight what he has described as a “constitutional emergency” in funding for indigent defense.
Following a hearing that started Friday and ended Monday, Hunter said Bunton’s office failed — before requesting a judicial order to stop assigning it cases — to first take other steps, such as those established by the American Bar Association for public defenders offices crippled by excessive caseloads.
Most of the ABA guidelines involve tracking workloads, seeking “emergency resources,” notifying the court that it can’t accept more clients and filing motions to stop the assignment of new cases or to withdraw from existing ones.
“The court finds the evidence presented compelling, but the evidence fails to establish the affirmative actions” that the office could take, Hunter wrote in his order. The judge said he would give Bunton’s office until Dec. 11 to show “that all reasonable steps to prevent the suspension of duties have been attempted.”
Hunter called the hearing in September, saying he was moved by a Washington Post editorial in which a young lawyer in Bunton’s office, Tina Peng, lamented a behemoth caseload.
At Bunton’s request, the judge delayed the hearing until Friday. By then, the city had added $250,000 to Bunton’s budget for 2016 to stave off planned furloughs for employees beginning in February.
Even though furloughs have been averted, Bunton said his office still languishes under a hiring freeze and plans remain in place to tighten spending in part by restricting payments to “conflict” attorneys hired to defend people that the office can’t represent for various reasons.
Bunton has long argued that his $6.3 million budget, half of which comes from fines and fees leveled on criminal defendants, is too small and too unstable.
“We’re still reviewing the ruling and trying to figure out our next steps,” he said Monday. “The thing we know is our funding system needs reform. What’s clear from the hearing is we lack the resources necessary.”
In 2012, following layoffs in Bunton’s office, Hunter appointed several big names in New Orleans political and social circles, who also happened to be attorneys, to represent a few dozen criminal defendants.
Hunter acknowledged last week that any ruling he makes would affect only cases in his Section K, one of a dozen sections in the courthouse.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.