A 4-year-old lawsuit that claims Louisiana's struggling public defense system does not provide adequate representation to poor clients has been stripped of its class-action status by a Baton Rouge appeals court.
Then-19th Judicial District Judge Todd Hernandez, without ruling on the merits of the case, had decided in 2018 that every poor defendant in the state represented by a public defender was eligible to participate in the lawsuit, with the exception of juveniles and defendants in capital cases.
A Baton Rouge judge has granted class-action status to a lawsuit that aims to upend Louisiana’s creaking public defense system.
The judge's ruling meant that if the lawsuit succeeded, officials would be forced to come up with a statewide plan for funding public defenders, rather than a solution that applied only to the original 13 named plaintiffs in the 2017 lawsuit.
But a five-judge panel of the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed Hernandez by a 4-1 vote Friday and said class certification is not appropriate in the case. The panel said the plaintiffs failed to satisfy the statutory requirements of commonality and typicality for class certification.
Mark Cunningham, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday he's hopeful the Louisiana Supreme Court will hear their appeal "of this critical issue."
"If you are poor in Louisiana and charged with a non-capital crime, the public defender appointed to your case will almost certainly lack the resources to meaningfully investigate and contest the charges against you," he said.
The public defense system is largely supported by court fees from convictions and traffic tickets rather than the state’s general fund. The system took another hit in the past year as courts in the state trimmed their dockets amid the coronavirus pandemic, reducing the amounts of fines and fees available.
Addressing the issue of commonality raised in the 2017 case, the 1st Circuit court panel cited a prior state Supreme Court ruling in which the high court stated: "A determination of effectiveness of counsel requires that the trial court `examine each case individually,' make `a particularized finding,' and `issue an independent judgment regarding each defendant.'"
In addressing the issue of typicality, the panel explained that "claims of one class representative will not be typical of all class members."
"What could be ineffective assistance of counsel for one class representative could simply be poor lawyering for another," the panel wrote.
Only five of the original named plaintiffs remain in the case, the court noted.
The lawsuit names Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Louisiana Public Defender Board and chief state public defender as defendants and alleges that tens of thousands of poor people across the state accused of crimes are at risk in the troubled public defense system that lacks money and oversight.
A lawsuit challenging Louisiana's public defense system should be deemed a class action because tens of thousands of poor people accused of cr…
Attorneys for the state have argued that class certification would make far too many people eligible for participation. The state's lawyers also say 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.
The plaintiffs' lawyers say Louisiana's public defense structure is systematically broken and requires an all-around fix. They claim the state systematically shortchanges poor defendants by saddling public defenders with high caseloads.
In another case that originated in East Baton Rouge Parish, the state Supreme Court ruled in December 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. The high court said only state lawmakers have the power to adopt changes that could assure adequate representation.
The Louisiana Supreme Court said Friday that woefully underfunded public defenders cannot take it upon themselves to lighten their own caseloa…