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

Derwyn Bunton

Throwing down a new gauntlet over what he described as a “constitutional crisis,” Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton told a judge Friday that his office will start turning away some new indigent defendants beginning in mid-January unless the state injects more money into his operation.

How the 13 judges of Criminal District Court will receive the news is uncertain, as Bunton made his statement only to Judge Arthur Hunter, who responded, “OK.”

Bunton’s appearance Friday came as a follow-up to a hearing the judge held last month to highlight the office’s workload problems and explore whether it can provide constitutionally adequate defense for its clients. Days later, though, Hunter declined a request from Bunton’s office to stop assigning it new cases, saying the office needed first to take more steps under American Bar Association guidelines.

Among them were to formally notify the court that it can’t accept more clients and to file motions to stop the assignment of new cases or to withdraw from existing ones.

Bunton acknowledged that refusing new clients, which he initially suggested in an austerity plan in late June to deal with a $1 million shortfall, could well lead to legal battles if judges order his office to take the cases anyway.

“Under Louisiana law, we cannot by ourselves ignore a court order,” Bunton said. “We would have to object and litigate.”

Bunton told Hunter that his office, which remains under a hiring freeze, has lost still more high-level lawyers since a Nov. 20 hearing in which sympathetic experts testified about huge caseloads in the office. Bunton said he’s lost at least eight lawyers since the summer.

A $250,000 boost from the city last month staved off furloughs that Bunton had slated for next year, but he said average workloads for his staff exceed 300 felony cases a year, twice the standard set by the ABA.

For some of the office’s 50 lawyers, the caseload has reached 350, he said, telling Hunter that his office will have to turn away select felony cases until that number falls to manageable levels.

Bunton’s budget, which peaked at more than $9 million in 2010, now sits at about $6.3 million.

About half of that revenue comes from fines and fees levied on criminal defendants, largely in Traffic Court, which has seen significant caseload declines amid a downturn in traffic arrests.

Bunton has long railed against what he describes as a “user-pay” system in which revenues fluctuate wildly.

The city this year increased its contribution to the defenders office to about $1.5 million, one-fourth of what the city gives annually to supplement District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s budget.

But Bunton cited a $700,000 reduction this year in money from the state Public Defender Board, which has steadily reduced its funding for indigent defense in New Orleans as it tries to manage similar troubles in other parishes. “It’s now time for the state to step up,” Bunton said outside the courtroom.

At the November hearing, State Public Defender James Dixon Jr., whose office doles out about $34 million in state-allocated funds to public defenders and contract attorneys statewide, said the Orleans Parish office is far from alone in its financial troubles.

Unlike in past years, when the state board had extra money from financially flush districts, there are no extra funds this year, Dixon said. As a result, state funding for Bunton’s office fell from $2.5 million to $1.8 million, and a state boost this year is “unlikely,” Dixon said.

In a letter that Bunton said he plans to send to all of the judges and other relevant public officials, he said his office “cannot ethically assign cases to attorneys who lack the requisite experience and training to represent defendants charged with serious offenses.”

He said the office would decline certain cases from Magistrate Court, as well as some assigned to it from Criminal District Court and ongoing cases from which private lawyers withdraw — usually when they don’t get paid.

“We regret the hardships these service restrictions will undoubtedly cause,” Bunton wrote, “but this is not a problem of (his office’s) making.”

Bunton’s office recently took a novel approach to generating revenue, launching a “crowd-funding” campaign with a stated goal of raising $50,000. A plug from a popular HBO comedy show helped the campaign raise $86,000.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.