Orleans Public Defenders Office says it will turn away some cases starting in January _lowres

Derwyn Bunton

Facing a budget shortfall that has placed the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office at the center of a statewide legal drama over indigent defense funding in Louisiana, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton this week stopped taking on any new “conflict” cases — a category that makes up as much as a fourth of his office’s felony caseload.

Bunton announced in a letter to the Criminal District Court judges on Tuesday that his five conflict attorneys would no longer accept new cases such as those involving co-defendants of arrestees who are represented by his dwindling stable of regular public defenders.

Bunton also said he has exhausted his budget for the private attorneys who are assigned many of those conflict cases.

Last year, the combination of private attorneys and public defenders handled 1,143 new conflict cases.

“At this point we’ve obligated all of our funds that were dedicated to our panel attorneys, and we’ve filled up all of our conflict division lawyers,” Bunton said. “We have reached capacity on that, and I don’t see any relief until we get a budget reset at the beginning of the (next) fiscal year,” July 1.

The latest move was not unexpected. Bunton previewed it last summer as part of an austerity plan that included a hiring freeze. Since early January, his office also has refused scores of new serious felony cases, leaving many of those defendants jailed without lawyers.

What Bunton and other public defense advocates describe as a mounting constitutional “crisis” in Louisiana has left his office facing about a $700,000 shortfall this year, compared with last year. His office now operates with a $6.3 million budget, down from more than $9 million four years ago, partly due to a decline in revenue from fines and fees tied to convictions.

Revenue from people convicted of traffic and other offenses accounts for about a third of Bunton’s budget. State funding for his office also has been cut back.

Bunton said he turned to hiring private attorneys as a stopgap way to handle cases that had been assigned to public defenders who recently left his office under the darkening budget cloud. The loss of high-level attorneys has resulted in his office refusing cases involving serious felony offenses.

“We’re not taking anything we don’t have capacity for,” Bunton said. “And just by happenstance, because all of our senior attorneys seem to be saying, ‘I don’t need to deal with this,’ we’ve been hit hardest by our attrition at the top.”

Bunton said he’s reaching out to private attorneys to take on more cases pro bono. But his refusal to accept some indigent defendants, while wait-listing others, has incurred the wrath of some judges at the criminal courthouse. Judge Laurie White grew exasperated Thursday over which cases Bunton’s office is accepting and which it is refusing.

“Let’s see if you’re going to get a lawyer today,” White told one drug defendant. “It’s a crapshoot!”

Judges have been left to appoint private attorneys for some defendants, while dozens of others await attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has filed a federal lawsuit against Bunton’s office on behalf of poor clients who have been denied public defenders.

That suit, also filed against the state Public Defender Board, takes aim at a state funding system for indigent defense that is unique to Louisiana, relying mostly on an unstable stream of traffic ticket revenue. The federal case, assigned to U.S. District Judge James Brady in Baton Rouge, is in its earliest stages.

Bunton’s office has historically represented more than 80 percent of the criminal defendants in Orleans Parish.

According to figures from his office, its revenue from Traffic Court has fallen by 28 percent, or nearly $500,000, since the 2013 fiscal year. His office also lost about $1.4 million in annual funding in 2012 from a state pool of money for indigent defense. The state cuts went further this year.

The City Council has stepped up the city’s contribution to Bunton’s office, to the tune of about an extra $600,000 this year, making up for some of the losses.

Bunton said he doesn’t expect any further slashes in services this fiscal year, but he noted that the state funding outlook for next year appears grim.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.