Longtime judge faces first challenger _lowres

Judge Todd Hernandez

A Baton Rouge judge has granted class-action status to a lawsuit that aims to upend Louisiana’s creaking public defense system.

Judge Todd Hernandez of the 19th Judicial District ruled that every poor defendant in Louisiana represented by a public defender is eligible for participation in the lawsuit, with the exception of juveniles and defendants in capital cases.

Hernandez’s Aug. 17 ruling was opposed by attorneys for the state, who said that class certification would make far too many people eligible for participation. More than 20,000 poor people face criminal charges at any one time in Louisiana.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said that Louisiana's public defense structure is systematically broken and requires an all-around fix.

The upshot of the judge’s ruling is that if the lawsuit succeeds, officials will be forced to come up with a statewide plan for funding public defenders, rather than a solution that applies only to the 13 named plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is set for trial on Jan. 28.

The plaintiffs argued in the suit, which was filed in East Baton Rouge Parish in February 2017, that Louisiana systematically shortchanges poor defendants by saddling public defenders with high caseloads.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, members of the Louisiana Public Defender Board and chief state Public Defender James Dixon were named as defendants.

The lawsuit asks the judge to declare Louisiana’s current public defender system unconstitutional because poor defendants do not receive equal protection and meaningful assistance of counsel.

The judge cannot order the Legislature to pay more into the system, which is largely supported by court fees from convictions and traffic tickets rather than the state’s general fund.

However, the judge can appoint a special monitor to oversee changes and threaten to hold state officials in contempt until the system is fixed.

Although Hernandez’s decision was an important victory for the plaintiffs, he noted that it was “purely procedural” rather than a ruling on the merits of the case.

“The persons contained within this class all have similar and/or common interests against each of the named defendants" and are so numerous "that it would be impracticable to require each one to individually appear before this court in pursuit of their claims,” he said.

The lawsuit is one of two filed against the state's public defense system in recent years. In 2016, the ACLU sued the Orleans Public Defenders and the state board over long waiting lists for access to an attorney.

A district judge dismissed the suit last year, but a panel of 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges heard a request to revive it earlier this month. Their decision is pending.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

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