The Louisiana Supreme Court said Friday that woefully underfunded public defenders cannot take it upon themselves to lighten their own caseloads, even if that would mean better service for poor clients, because only the state Legislature has the power to adopt changes that could assure adequate representation.
In a case that originated in East Baton Rouge Parish, chief public defender Mike Mitchell argued his attorneys were too overworked to adequately represent their clients because funding shortages created impossible caseloads.
Mitchell sought a statewide order from the Supreme Court that would have given the Louisiana Legislature one year to relieve caseloads — presumably by beefing up funding — and after that begin ordering the dismissal of cases, starting with misdemeanors and less serious felonies.
Instead, justices reversed an appellate court ruling backing Mitchell, who reasoned that public defenders should be allowed to decline representation and triage cases when needed. Several justices expressed skepticism during oral arguments in October and in Friday's ruling, a majority said questions about ineffective assistance of counsel resulting from overburdened public defenders would have to be answered on a case-by-case basis.
The rationale piggybacks on a 1993 state Supreme Court decision, which also stopped short of declaring systemic problems, in part because "there is no precise definition of reasonably effective assistance of counsel." Therefore considering such questions "necessarily involves a detailed examination of the specific facts and circumstances of the case."
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson provided the lone dissent, noting Louisiana holds the highest incarceration rate in the country and has more wrongful convictions than most other states.
"Real human tragedies abound in the wake of this state's commitment to incarcerate so many without a corresponding commitment to pay for their defense," she wrote. "There is no equal justice under law when an innocent poor man is assigned a lawyer who doesn't even have adequate access to a computer, but a guilty rich man can purchase an entire legal team who will secure his acquittal."
She also noted the East Baton Rouge Parish office handled 12,000 cases in 2017 with a single investigator.
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The majority said Mitchell failed to present convincing evidence that any defendants were at serious risk of receiving ineffective assistance in the 19th Judicial District, which consists only of East Baton Rouge Parish.
His case relied mostly on a statewide analysis by the accounting firm Postlewaite & Netterville and the American Bar Association, which found that every public defender assigned to one section of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge had three times or more the caseload that should be taken on in a given year.
Justice Jeff Hughes, who wrote Friday's majority opinion, acknowledged those "potentially excessive workloads" but noted Mitchell's lack of evidence and said he should exhaust additional statutory and administrative remedies. He also noted that two assistant public defenders in a certain section are allowed to maintain private civil law practices outside their public duties.
Ultimately, the majority of justices left state legislators with an implicit message, citing the district court decision: "that any remedy related to chronic underfunding of the public defender system was within the exclusive purview of the Louisiana Legislature and was outside the parameters of what the court had the authority to fashion."
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Meanwhile, funding shortages have only been exacerbated amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has thrown the Louisiana criminal justice system and its various budgets into chaos.
The Louisiana Public Defender Board sounded the alarm bells in August, warning that the entire system could collapse. Public defender districts largely rely on court fines and fees, such as conviction costs and traffic ticket payments. Those critical funding streams dried up when courthouses across the state scaled back services in accordance with coronavirus restrictions. Many districts across the state furloughed staff or cut salaries this year.
Any hopes of a bailout from the state Legislature also fell by the wayside this year amid widespread budget shortfalls.