Arguing that state public defenders don’t do enough to make sure the clients they represent always are actually poor, a pair of Covington lawyers last week asked a state court to compel public defenders to investigate potential clients’ financial status.
The suit, known as a writ of mandamus, says public defenders regularly take clients without making a proper inquiry into whether they qualify for free representation. That lack of scrutiny contributes to overwhelming caseloads, leading to the financial woes faced by many defenders’ offices, the pleading says.
Michael Bradley, who formerly worked for the 22nd Judicial District Defenders Office in Covington, and attorney Shaun Rogers filed the writ Thursday, naming state Public Defender James Dixon and each member of the Louisiana Public Defender Board as defendants.
A writ of mandamus is filed to compel a public officer to follow the law.
According to the Louisiana statute cited by Bradley and Rogers, a court must make an “inquiry and determination of indigency” no later than the person’s arraignment. Only after the court has made such a determination can that person ask to be represented on the taxpayer’s dime, the suit says.
Bradley, referring specifically to practices in the 22nd Judicial District, which includes St. Tammany and Washington parishes, said the public defenders office there is “hustling for clients” and that proof of income is rarely required. What’s more, he said, claims by Dixon that a dozen of the state’s public defenders’ offices could soon be forced to restrict the services they offer to poor clients could be alleviated by simply following state law.
“They’ve done nothing but ask for more money,” Bradley said.
In an interview Monday, Dixon said the lawsuit is “without merit” and that his office would seek to get it dismissed. He said that in every jurisdiction, it is the judge or commissioner handling a defendant’s first appearance who conducts an inquiry into their ability to pay for representation.
Dixon also criticized the suit for being overly vague, pointing out that it doesn’t mention any specific cases.
The chief public defender in St. Tammany and Washington parishes, John Lindner, flatly rejected Bradley’s claims.
“We are not out there hustling clients,” he said. More than half of the people arrested in St. Tammany Parish qualify for a public defender.
A court commissioner makes an initial determination of indigency at a person’s initial hearing, which must be held within 72 hours of arrest, Lindner said. Then a defendant must fill out an application and attest to whether he needs a public defender or not, he said.
Defendants are presumed to be indigent if they receive public assistance such as food stamps or live in public housing, according to state law. They also can qualify if they earn less than twice the federal poverty guideline. That means a father of two would qualify if he earned less than about $32,000.
“This office is charged with the responsibility of representing poor people. That’s what we do,” Lindner said.
No date has been set for a hearing on Bradley and Rogers’ writ.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.