An Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge has scheduled an unusual hearing Friday and subpoenaed Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton to testify about the ability of his office to adequately represent criminal defendants despite staff furloughs and other cutbacks.
In a letter to Bunton, Judge Arthur Hunter said he was moved by a Washington Post editorial last week in which a young lawyer in Bunton’s office, Tina Peng, lamented a behemoth caseload.
“Defendants who cannot afford to make bond can sit in jail for 60 days while the district attorney decides whether to arraign them. An unconstitutionally high caseload means that I often see my new clients only once in those two months,” Peng wrote. “I plead some of my clients to felony convictions on the day I meet them. If I don’t follow up to make sure clients are released when they should be, they can sit in jail for unnecessary weeks and months.”
Hunter said he wants to know whether poor defendants in his court section receive constitutionally adequate representation. What he’ll do next is uncertain.
“That depends on (Bunton’s) answer,” Hunter said.
The 18-year judge has been known to make dramatic gestures about the funding for public defenders. In February 2012, he ordered some notable names in New Orleans political and social circles — who also happen to be lawyers — to defend dozens of criminal defendants on the heels of massive layoffs on Bunton’s staff.
Among those Hunter enlisted were state Sens. J.P. Morrell, Edwin Murray and Karen Carter Peterson; Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche; and frequent TV legal analysts Dane Ciolino and Joe Raspanti.
At the time, Hunter said he was acting in response to a “constitutional emergency,” although some of the names he tapped wondered how well defendants would be served by rusty lawyers with little or no experience in criminal defense.
Hunter and other judges took a similar tack with a cattle call to lawyers around the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as the New Orleans criminal justice system lay in tatters.
Hunter noted that Peng alone has four cases pending in his courtroom, and that the heavy caseload she described “may be an issue with many of the public defenders.”
Bunton’s office, like others statewide, is facing another belt-tightening, which he attributes to a cutback in state public defense funding and lower revenue from the fines and fees levied on criminal defendants amid a significant decline in arrests citywide.
Unlike elsewhere in the country, indigent defense in Louisiana is funded largely through a “user pay” system.
Bunton, whose office receives more than half of its funding that way, has described that system as “inadequate, unpredictable and unreliable.”
In June, Bunton revealed an austerity plan that includes four weeks of unpaid furloughs for his staff of 88 employees, about 50 of whom are lawyers.
He warned that the cutbacks “will likely cause serious delays in the courts and potential constitutional crises for our criminal justice system in New Orleans” without a quick remedy.
A hiring freeze went into effect July 1, the start of a new fiscal year. Bunton said he’s facing a $1 million shortfall from last year’s budget of about $6 million.
He also said his office will stop paying for outside “conflict” attorneys in new capital cases in which defendants facing the death penalty need them. The only outside conflict attorneys the office will hire for noncapital cases will be those assigned to gang racketeering cases, for which the City Council has earmarked money, he wrote.
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