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Leon Cannizzaro speaks during the press conference in New Orleans on December 12, 2016.

The MacArthur Justice Center on Friday filed suit against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro over his office’s use of so-called “fake subpoenas."

Lawyers for the nonprofit group are trying to force the District Attorney’s Office to hand over copies of the documents — which mimicked the appearance of court-issued subpoenas but had no legal standing — it sent to witnesses from 2013 to the present.

Attorneys for the group said their long-term aim is to question the constitutionality of the Louisiana law that allows courts to subpoena witnesses, on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office, to be questioned before a trial.

The lawyers said that Cannizzaro’s office denied their public-records request for the documents in 2015. At the time, his office told the group to ask the clerk of Criminal District Court for the documents instead.

But in interviews with news organizations last month, prosecutors said they never sent the subpoenas to judges for approval.

“The district attorney’s staff misled us about where to find subpoenas, at best,” Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, said in a statement. “Because their subpoenas often weren’t reviewed by any judges, the court would not have a record of those.”

After the District Attorney's Office agreed to stop using the controversial “fake subpoenas” last month, Cannizzaro admitted they were “improper.” The office is now sending “notices to appear” to potential witnesses to bring them in for questioning instead.

The District Attorney's Office said it could not estimate how many times the controversial documents were sent to witnesses because they were used at the discretion of individual prosecutors. There was no central record-keeping apparatus for the documents, according to First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin.

Critics of the District Attorney’s Office said the “fake subpoenas” were just one in a series of heavy-handed tactics — like obtaining material-witness warrants to arrest skittish witnesses, or charging witnesses who changed their stories with perjury — in use under Cannizzaro.

"We are concerned about the constitutionality of the district attorney subpoena process generally,” Schwartzmann said. “We were trying to investigate that, but we were told by the district attorney that they would not produce any such records. Two years later, we learn that the abuse of authority was worse than we feared.”

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said he would not comment on the MacArthur Justice Center lawsuit, per office policy on pending litigation.

The suit has been assigned to Civil District Court Judge Sidney Cates.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432