Private attorneys want money to represent clients refused by Public Defenders

Private attorneys want money to represent clients refused by Public Defenders

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Orleans Parish private attorneys are challenging a judge's order to represent indigent clients recently refused by public defenders.

On Tuesday, an Orleans Parish Criminal Court judge will preside over the hearing.

The lawyers claim the court is taking their time and ability to make money without compensation.

"We have a broken system," Court Watch NOLA Executive Director Simone Levine said. "We've been seeing judges who are extremely frustrated over what solutions they should find in circumstances where they can't appoint public defenders, and we understand public defenders feeling that they are at their max."

Due to large funding cuts and dwindling staff, Orleans Public Defenders refused to represent about 20 people who could not afford a lawyer, according to Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton.

"What we have isn't enough, and it's an incredible strain on the office. We are going to remain in service restrictions as long as our system of funding is inadequate, unreliable and unstable," Bunton said.

OPD blames the lack of funds on a $900,000 cut in state funding and also a decrease from traffic fines collected by NOPD. With NOPD officers focused on more serious crimes recently, the number of traffic tickets written in 2015 is down 40 percent from 2013.

"The funding mechanism that Louisiana uses is...fees from the courts to fund public defender's office. The funding is minimal and inadequate," Loyola University Criminologist George Capowich said.

Louisiana is the only state to fund public defenders offices in this manner, and OPD is not the only public defender with a funding problem. Jefferson Parish Public Defenders Deputy Chief Paul Fleming said if the funding issue does not get fixed within the foreseeable future, his office will be in the same predicament as Orleans Parish.

"You can't have public defenders who are not adequately representing defendants. What that means is wrongful convictions, in our minds," Levine said. "You can't have judges who have absolutely no idea who to appoint in circumstances then you have defendants that are not represented at all."

Judges finding representation has become a burden on the courts.

"What the judge did in this particular case is ordered other attorneys, private attorneys to handle the case and to handle them pro bono," Bunton said. "If FOX 8 called you up one morning and said, 'hey you're working for free today,' I think you'd have issues with that. There's members of the private bar who certainly have issues with that."

On Monday, Criminal Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier ordered OPD to appoint council to three indigent clients. Bunton appointed himself to represent one of those clients.

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