Called to an unusual hearing on the state of his overworked staff, Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton told a judge Friday that he wasn’t yet ready to spell out the harm being done to poor criminal defendants by recent cuts in his office’s budget.
Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter had called the hearing to raise public awareness of the shrinking amount of money dedicated to indigent defense in New Orleans — and possibly to arm himself legally for dramatic action.
The judge subpoenaed Bunton to address a jarring article by one public defender who described caseloads so bloated that the office’s lawyers have little time to visit their clients and often strike plea deals just minutes after meeting them for the first time in a courtroom.
Handed a platform to sound the alarm about the lack of funding for his office, Bunton instead asked Hunter for a delay.
Bunton said he wanted to let his pleas for more money play out with both the city and the Louisiana Public Defender Board before venting publicly. So Hunter reset the hearing for Nov. 18.
“I don’t want to be premature,” Bunton said afterward. “It’s like with Powerball. There’s always a chance.”
In the meantime, Bunton’s office has taken a novel approach to generating revenue, launching a “crowd-funding” campaign this week with a stated goal of raising $50,000 in five days.
The office’s budget for this fiscal year is about $5 million, about $1 million less than last fiscal year.
Bunton has requested about $2 million from the city to restore the lost funding. He said he’s holding out hope before taking drastic measures that could include turning away poor clients.
Such a move would likely provoke a pitched legal battle, as many of the 13 judges in the criminal district courthouse could order Bunton’s office to take those cases anyway.
Bunton said he wasn’t ready yet for that fight and couldn’t answer Hunter’s question about whether indigent defendants receive effective assistance from lawyers in his office.
A frequent advocate for more stable indigent defense funding, Hunter has described the situation in New Orleans as a “constitutional emergency.” The 19-year judge, a former police officer, has made the point in the past by enlisting high-profile politicos with law licenses to represent New Orleans criminal defendants.
Hunter said he was moved to hold the hearing, and possibly take action, after reading a Washington Post editorial last week in which a young lawyer in Bunton’s office, Tina Peng, lamented a behemoth caseload. She noted that Bunton recently announced a plan for four weeks of unpaid furlough for his staff.
But Hunter suggested Friday that he could take action only with regard to cases involving indigent defendants in his own courtroom.
Whatever he does will wait a few months until the ink is dry on the city’s 2016 budget, which the City Council will adopt in November.
Bunton said the revenue decline is the product of less money both from the state board and from fines and fees levied on criminal defendants in the city. The latter decline, he said, is the result of fewer cases coming through Traffic Court and Municipal Court, as a depleted police force makes fewer arrests.
Presumably that also means reduced caseloads in his office. But Bunton said many of his lawyers still work 300 to 350 felony cases a year, almost double the caseload standard set by the state board.
Critics on the private defense bar say Bunton, whose office represents about 80 percent of criminal defendants in the parish, needs to stop taking all comers and do a better job of vetting defendants’ ability to pay. In the past, Bunton has suggested a tiered system in which defendants who can contribute something toward their free defense would do so.
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