Longtime judge faces first challenger _lowres

Judge Todd Hernandez

A state judge had advanced a class-action lawsuit alleging the state violates poor defendants' constitutional rights, setting up for trial a case that could upend Louisiana's struggling public defense system.

Judge Todd Hernandez ruled last week to move forward the lawsuit, which claims Louisiana's public defense system does not adequately provide representation to poor clients.

Southern Poverty Law Center senior supervising attorney Jamila Johnson, one of the plaintiff attorneys, called Hernandez's decision an important step forward. 

"It's too simplistic to say it's lack of funding," Johnson said Hernandez affirmed in his ruling. "The constitutional issues are separate from funding. … It’s a system where there is inadequate oversight, … caseloads are too high, there are too many conflicts, … the outcome of the system is that everyone is at risk.”

Hernandez, of the 19th Judicial District Court, denied multiple claims from the state trying to dismiss the lawsuit; the state had argued that any fix to the public defense system needs to come from the Legislature because the issues stem from budget problems, and therefore, are "not a matter of law."  

Hernandez disagreed.

"The enforcement of or protection of individual constitutional rights can never be dependent upon the availability of public funds," Hernandez wrote. "Whether the public defense system in the State of Louisiana violates federal and state constitutional rights of the class plaintiffs … is a factual question that must be decided at trial."

The class-action lawsuit representing about 50,000 indigent criminal defendants across the state should go to trial this summer, Johnson said. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Jones Walker law firm, the New York firm Davis, Polk & Wardell, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The lawsuit names Governor John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Public Defender Board and State Public Defender Jay Dixon as defendants. A trial date has not been officially set. 

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“Ultimately, the state is responsible for ensuring that the sixth amendment rights of the people in the state are upheld," Johnson said in an interview Thursday. 

Calls to reach the attorney representing Edwards, Dixon and the state public defender board, Remy Voisin Starns, went unanswered on Thursday.

The lawsuit alleges the way Louisiana runs its public defense system denies poor residents accused of crimes their constitutional right to an attorney and equal protection under the law. While Johnson said many of the problems with the system are a result of insufficient funding — a challenge repeatedly admitted by Dixon and public defenders statewide — she said there are many other problems that harm clients' representation.  

Louisiana's public defender offices are partially funded by local criminal fines and fees — mostly from traffic tickets — and then a share of a state pot of money. This revenue structure means public defenders' budgets often vary from year to year and from parish to parish. In December while speaking to state lawmakers, Dixon called the current funding situation "dire" for offices around the state. 

But Johnson said she hopes this lawsuit, if they are successful, would bring better representation to indigent defendants, not only with funding, but also practices and policies. 

"This really feels like the final swing before trial," Johnson said. "The case is continuing on. … The state is going to have to bring it’s A game.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.