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19th Judicial District Court Judge Tiffany Foxworth-Roberts

A Baton Rouge judge says ongoing disruptions at the public defender's office in the year since a new chief was appointed have caused major problems for her courtroom — in some cases jeopardizing low-income defendants' constitutional rights. 

Judge Tiffany Foxworth-Roberts, who serves on the criminal court bench for the 19th Judicial District Court, wrote in several emails that apparent disorganization and lack of communication from the public defender office has frustrated her section of court.

East Baton Rouge District Defender Lisa Parker has faced a barrage of complaints since she assumed her position as chief last July. Her office has hemorrhaged attorneys and support staff alike, leaving few experienced public defenders to tackle the heavy caseload of serious violent crimes that have continued to rise in recent months.

State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat who sits on a legislative committee studying better ways to fund public defenders, has called first for an investigation into Parker's office and then, weeks later, for the board that appointed the chief to fire her outright. State officials simultaneously announced they would launch a probe into the office.

Emails obtained by The Advocate show Foxworth-Roberts has registered her concerns about the office multiple times over several months. They portray dysfunction in at least one section of court, where defendants are left waiting for representation as public defenders quit en masse and the few attorneys left are unable to handle the heavy caseload.  

Foxworth-Roberts declined to expand on the concerns cited in her emails.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Parker said the “office of Public Defenders is working tirelessly to provide service to the indigent of our community.”

“We appreciate the concern of others as we know they share the same passion for seeing proper and equal representation for everyone,” the statement said.

While acknowledging there has been some turnover, the statement said all four positions in the judge's section of court have been filled for several months.

In a January email to Parker copying her fellow criminal court judges, Foxworth-Roberts said she wanted "to express [her] discontentment with the current policy and practices" regarding public defender assignments to her section of court. 

She noted that in the past year eight attorneys had rotated in and out of her section — and six of them had quit at the time of her correspondence.

"Due to the high turnover rate and constant influx of new attorneys, resoving cases assigned to the Office of the Public Defender have become increasingly problematic," she wrote. 

Because the public defenders often haven't met with their clients or reviewed their files until they appear in court, she argued their "unfamiliarity with the cases puts defendants at a significant disadvantage." 

Foxworth-Roberts also critiqued how "conflict cases" are assigned, explaining those attorneys do not regularly practice in that jurisdiction and so often fail to appear in person. Those court proceedings then must be reset, delaying outcomes, she added.

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Conflict cases are assigned by the court to a private attorney who represents an indigent client in lieu of a public defender, either due to a conflict of interest or excessive caseloads. 

Things have gotten so bad that only one attorney had been available to cover her section of court multiple times, Foxworth-Roberts said. 

"I estimate 85% of the defendants who appear before the court are youthful, indigent, minority offenders who lack financial resources to retain private council," she said.

But the sole public defender — who Foxworth-Roberts emphasized had done "an exceptional job" representing her clients — had been practicing law less than three months at the time of her email, she said. 

"The volume is too high for one person to manage," Foxworth-Roberts wrote.

Parker said in her statement that the attorney in question had served as a contract secretary in the office "where she was exposed to the legal processes within our office." And she added that other attorneys have been assigned to Foxworth-Roberts' section.

A different email from April 21 notes that, on a single day, six cases had to be continued because conflict attorneys didn't show up to represent their clients. Foxworth-Roberts mentioned that another conflict attorney had resigned, but she didn't know about it until he did not show up to his previous client's scheduled trial. 

She had also learned yet another conflict attorney who frequented her section was resigning, she wrote, "thus creating another void under this administration." 

Finally, in an email dated April 27, Foxworth-Roberts emailed Parker and copied members of the state Public Defender Board and Rep. Marcelle, among others.

Titled "Ongoing issues - OPD," the email referenced two defendants who were without counsel and seeking relief from the court. 

"I welcome feedback regarding a resolution to this ongoing crisis that is infringing upon the Constitutional Rights of the affected parties," she wrote in closing.

In each email, she noted Parker had failed to respond to requests to discuss the issues. 

Parker, who has spent more than two decades serving a variety of positions in the criminal justice system, was appointed last year following a 6-3 vote by the public defender board. She replaced Chief Public Defender Michael Mitchell, a 27-year veteran, after he stepped down in early 2021 to join the board in an administrative role.


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com