An eleventh-hour cash boost from the city may have staved off planned furloughs for public defenders in New Orleans, but that didn’t stop Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office from asking a judge on Friday to stop assigning new indigent defendants to the office.
The unusual cry for caseload mercy came at the start of a hearing that Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter called to raise public awareness of the local impact of a statewide budget crunch for public defenders that has left Bunton’s office resorting to crowdfunding to try to make ends meet.
They’re still not meeting, Bunton and several friendly witnesses testified.
“They’re not shirking their responsibilities,” Deputy District Defender Jee Park said of the office’s staff of 53 attorneys. “There just is not enough time in the day to adequately meet the demands of excessive caseloads.”
At issue in Friday’s hearing, which was tied to no particular case, was whether Bunton’s office can provide constitutionally adequate service for its clients, Hunter said.
Bunton said his office has lost six front-line lawyers since late June, when he announced an austerity plan for an office that handles some 20,000 cases a year, including nearly 8,000 felonies.
This week, Bunton announced his office would furlough all employees for 10 days from February to June to help cover a $1 million budget shortfall. A $250,000 injection from the city Thursday has halted those planned furloughs.
New Orleans is far from alone in feeling a pinch, said State Public Defender James Dixon Jr., whose office doles out about $33.7 million a year in state-allocated funds to public defenders and contract attorneys statewide.
Dixon testified that the defenders offices in eight of Louisiana’s 42 judicial districts are operating under formal service restrictions, curtailing key parts of their normal work. Among them are the offices in populous East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes, he said.
The New Orleans office is among eight that are on the brink of curtailing services, Dixon testified.
Unlike in past years, when the state board had extra money from financially flush districts to help out strapped offices, there are no extra funds this year, he said. The result: State funding for Bunton’s office fell from $2.5 million to $1.8 million this year.
A state boost this year is “unlikely,” Dixon said. “Even if we do, it is not nearly enough to do any serious good.”
The state funds make up only a portion of Bunton’s budget, which totals $6.2 million. The city this year kicked in about $1.5 million, including a $400,000 boost, while the rest largely comes from fines and fees levied on criminal defendants, mostly in Traffic Court, where the fact that police are issuing fewer tickets has meant shrinking revenue.
Bunton has long lamented what he describes as an unpredictable “user-pay” system. On Friday, he noted that his office pales in both staffing and budget compared with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, which gets about $12 million a year, including $6.5 million from the city.
“I’m not saying the DA doesn’t need what he has,” Bunton said. “I just need more than what I have.”
Hunter called the hearing in September after reading a Washington Post editorial in which a young lawyer in Bunton’s office, Tina Peng, lamented a behemoth caseload. Peng wrote that she found herself having some clients plead guilty to felonies on the day she met them.
One legal ethics professor who testified Friday described indigent defense in New Orleans as a systemic failure by any measure, including caseloads.
“To call this a justice system is really a misnomer,” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, of Cardozo Law School in New York. “If we’re going to accept a system where we’re just processing people and keeping people in jails and prisons without providing counsel, we’re certainly letting down the profession and letting down the public.”
Hunter has been known to make dramatic gestures about funding for public defenders. In 2012, the veteran judge ordered some notable names in New Orleans political and social circles — who also happen to be lawyers — to defend dozens of criminal defendants. At the time, he said he was acting in response to a “constitutional emergency.”
Whatever Hunter does this time, he acknowledged it could apply only to his court section, one of a dozen in the courthouse.
On Friday, he repeatedly posed the same question to Bunton: Why not simply refuse to take on new cases?
“If you’re making a declaration to every judge in this building — ‘I’m not accepting any more indigent defense cases based on constitutional obligations’ — once that happens, it belongs to the judges, what they’re going to do with that particular defendant,” Hunter said. “You don’t have to ask me not to appoint any (more defendants) to you.”
Park suggested that such a move could force unpleasant showdowns with judges who might order the office to take those cases anyway.
Hunter continued the hearing until Monday, when he plans to hear testimony from attorney Barry Scheck, director of the New York-based Innocence Project.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.