A federal judge in Baton Rouge on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit asking the court to oversee and enforce poor criminal defendants' right to counsel in Orleans Parish.
The action ended a bid by the American Civil Liberties Union to force the state to address what even the judge dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge James Brady, agreed is a crisis in public defense funding in Louisiana.
"It is clear that the Louisiana Legislature is failing miserably at upholding its obligations" under a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that required states to provide lawyers for defendants unable to hire their own, Brady wrote. "Budget shortages are no excuse to violate the United States Constitution."
But in a 13-page ruling, Brady raised concerns over federalism issues, writing that ruling in the ACLU's favor "would inevitably lead (the court) to become the overseer of the Orleans Parish criminal court system" in a way that he said would fly in the face of prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
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The court "sees no way to enter this funding fray without intermeddling in state criminal prosecutions," Brady wrote.
The ruling puts an end to an unusual lawsuit in which the ACLU sued Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton's office, while also targeting the state Public Defender Board, in an effort to force the state to fund both agencies better.
The suit took larger aim at a state funding scheme for public defense that largely relies on fines and fees levied on defendants — mostly traffic violators — along with an injection of supplemental state funding that has hovered around $30 million a year.
A steady downturn in the number of traffic tickets has led a growing number of public defender offices statewide to cry poverty and institute austerity measures.
Citing a shortfall in Orleans Parish, Bunton last year began turning away defendants in serious felony cases, and the ACLU responded by suing.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, noted that Brady agreed in his ruling that a crisis in public defense funding exists, and that "lasting relief will only come when the Legislature locates an adequate source of funds."
"We're disappointed that he did not see fit to turn his language into an order, but we're certainly gratified that he recognizes the severity of the problem," Esman said.
"What we had hoped for was a court order saying that it's woefully underfunded, and that the state needs to find a way to fund the public defender system adequately," she added. "Now they don't have to pay any attention because it's just the musings of a federal judge."
Bunton's office did not launch a full-scale defense against the lawsuit, which was sparked by his move to turn away or wait-list numerous poor defendants.
"We thought it was unconstitutional and unethical to take on cases we didn't have the resources to handle," Bunton said Tuesday.
"The bottom line is, we all wanted the (same) outcome, which is a public defenders office that can handle all of the work that comes to it — constitutionally, ethically and professionally," he said.
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Bunton likened the requested intervention to the federal consent decrees that now govern the Orleans Parish jail and the New Orleans Police Department.
"What the court seems to have decided," he said, "is this is not a dispute that the federal courts are equipped to handle."
Bunton said his office has wait-listed or refused more than 1,000 cases since the start of 2016. That list now is down to fewer than 100 names, he said.
But the office continues to turn away some new cases, he said, with the biggest problem in funding private attorneys in cases where his office has a conflict of interest.