As public defenders statewide grapple with fluctuating budgets, overwhelming caseloads and pending litigation, the Louisiana State Public Defender Board has chosen a new leader.
The board chose Rémy Voisin Starns, a Metairie-based attorney, to replace James Dixon, who abruptly resigned last summer. The decision came after hours of closed-door candidate interviews and deliberations.
A staunch defender of Gov. John Bel Edwards and the former state public defender's leadership, Starns is a past member of the Public Defender Board and serves on the LSU Board of Supervisors.
A Baton Rouge native, he graduated from LSU in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science with minors in Latin and classical civilization. Starns was a defensive lineman for the football team — mostly on the scout team — while at LSU. He later earned law degrees from Loyola University New Orleans School of Law and Tulane Law School, according to the LSU website.
"I'm looking forward to working with the board," Starns said following the vote. "I'm looking forward to working with district defenders to support the line defenders and the good work they do every single day."
The state's chief public defender handles oversight of district defenders and advocates for public defense at the capitol.
Dixon, who served as Louisiana’s State Public Defender for five years, stepped down last summer. In his resignation letter, he said he would be relocating to Massachusetts with his family but offered no explanation for his departure.
He said in an interview this week he left for "personal reasons."
Richard Pittman, deputy public defender and director of juvenile defender services, has been Interim State Public Defender for the past six months.
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Dixon's sudden departure came at a particularly critical time for the public defender system.
For years, public defenders across the state have claimed their offices are overburdened and underfunded, largely due to their partial reliance on traffic tickets and court fees. This funding model means public defenders are at the whim of parish revenue fluctuations each year, creating an unstable foundation for a constitutionally required right to counsel.
The U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright requires states to provide lawyers for defendants unable to hire their own.
When the Louisiana Public Defender Board released its annual report for 2018 at the beginning of last year, Dixon noted the workload of public defenders across the state was "almost five times what it should be." He also pointed out that, with a statewide decline in traffic tickets, the public defender system would face a new crisis "as early as 2020."
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Starns recognizes this obstacle, saying after the announcement of his election that he plans to work with state leadership to address the problem.
"The challenge that's always faced the public defender board is funding," Starns said. "And we'll be working with the Legislature and administration under our great governor...to hopefully find the right mix to properly fund indigent defense in Louisiana."
In recent months, district defenders for both the Orleans and East Baton Rouge parish offices have voiced their concerns over funding shortfalls and asked the city or courts to find a solution.
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Meanwhile, an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed in 2017 by a group of nonprofit and private law firms alleges that the state violates poor peoples' constitutional right to counsel, citing insufficient funding as one of the key problems preventing adequate representation. The suit represents about 50,000 indigent criminal defendants across Louisiana and seeks a court-appointed monitor to oversee the state's public defense system.
Governor Edwards, the Public Defender Board and James Dixon are all named as defendants in the suit. Starns has represented the defendants in court, but said in an interview on Friday that he will withdraw as counsel in the case given his new role.
Despite multiple challenges from the state, the case remains open.
Dixon has defended the Edwards' administration's funding priorities in the past and argued that the the lawsuit is too broad. He says legislative action is "the only way" to address the public defense system's funding issues, as dictated by the state constitution.
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Orleans Parish District Defender Derwyn Bunton, St. Tammany and Washington Parishes District Defender John Lindner, East Baton Rouge Parish District Defender Michael Mitchell, attorney Robert Noel and Lafayette Parish District Defender G. Paul Marx also interviewed as candidates over three hours of closed-door executive sessions with the board Thursday afternoon.