Judge Threatens to Force Payments After Lawyer Pay Cuts!!

I realize our esteemed D.A. is between a rock and hard place concerning his low budget and high costs. He must love creating high drama, since that’s what he has in spades with his latest austerity plan to cut off private lawyers hired by the Orleans Parish Indigent Defender’s office.

When it comes down to the nasty cases that attract the death penalty as punishment, it’s customary to hire death penalty expert attorneys to ensure a proper defense is mounted. Whenever a client has a conflict with the office, private attorneys are hired to represent them.

Criminal District Judge Lynda Van Davis scolded Derwyn Bunton, the Chief Public Defender. Burton had to take the witness stand to explain why payments to private lawyers were halted.

Judge Lynda Van Davis

Judge Lynda Van Davis

Defense lawyer Donald Sauviac Jr. had asked to be withdrawn from representing Kenneth Barnes, who is set to go to trial in the 2009 kidnapping and execution of a 19-year-old couple.

He’s owed over $20,000 for past work and expects to bill an equal amount before the case ends.

After grilling Bunton, the judge accused him of misappropriating capital case funds. Bunton replied that he couldn’t print money.

Derwyn Bunton, Orleans Parish Public Defender's Office

Derwyn Bunton, Orleans Parish Public Defender's Office

Due to state reductions, the office is roughly $2 million short of its $9.5 million income projections for the year. About 900 ongoing cases and about 550 more will be affected before the fiscal year ends in June.

A number of lawyers have pushed to withdraw from cases since Bunton’s announcement last week, but judges have rejected nearly all of them.

Judge Davis denied Sauviac’s request to withdraw. She also threatened to order Bunton to pay up, saying she hasn’t heard they are bankrupt or out of money.

State law probably won’t let her order payment.  She can halt the prosecution until money becomes available. A hearing on this issue is scheduled for Wednesday, January 11.

What a mess!  Without a doubt the funding mechanism for the Orleans Parish Indigent Defender Office needs to be stabilized forever!  These are people’s lives that are on trial here, and they need the best defense possible. Outside specialists make this possible.

I appeal to the Louisiana Legislature to stop playing around with this issue and fund this office properly now and forever!!

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~ by neworleansmusicman on January 12, 2012.

2 Responses to “Judge Threatens to Force Payments After Lawyer Pay Cuts!!”

  1. The writer of the intial comment preceeding the article is clearly wrong. The district attorney does not controll payments to private lawyers who represent indigent defendants. Perhaps this paper needs writers who are fluent in Louisiana criminal law. Not fluent like the person who runs the public defender’s office (because he seems to not have a clue as to what needs to be done). But fluent like some of the seasoned attorneys who represent individuals charged with crimes and those who prosecute them daily in this city.

    I have been hearing for several years that the public defender’s office is loaded with young lawyers from the North who treat the office like it is an extension of the ACLU. They waste money on things like taking pictures of misdemeanor defendants who bump their foot or scrape their elbow and try to make a case out of that mess. They waste the court’s time raising the issue of the 10-2 jury vote even though the Louisiana Supreme Court has settled this issue long ago. They utilize a process of representation that assigns one lawyer to follow a single client throughout the entire process of his/her case. This means that if the public defender has one client in Section A, and another client in Section B, one of those sections of court will no doubt be held up awaiting the arrival of the public defender. Judges are asking people to text and telephone public defenders all morning and afternoon in order to get these lawyers to come to court. The process is not working. It clogs court dockets, stiffles the process and pisses off the clients they represent. Before Hurricane Katrina, the courts had two public defenders in each section of court who handled all of the indigent cases for that particular section. The system seemed to work well. Now, no public defenders are assigned to a particular section of court. They are assigned to clients, and they run around from courtroom to courtroom all day long trying to keep up with their cases.

    The public defender’s office seems to want to represent everyone who gets arrested, regardless of their ability or inability to hire an attorney. They step up, without the courts making the decision as to the indigency of the defendant, and they assume representation on their own. Where they get these ideas from, I can only guess. What I do know is that there needs to be an overhaul of the public defender’s office. If this office is not overhauled and another director or chief is not appointed/hired, the office is going to lose a good number of competent, hard-working, veteran lawyers. Our city will suffer and we will become the laughing stock of the nation. Besides that, indigent defendants will not receive effective assistance of counsel – and effective assistance of counsel is the bottom line. That is the mandate; it is what the system is constitutionally required to provide.

    And what about this so-called “conflict panel?” That is an absolute joke. It is said that the conflict panel exists so that an attorney can be appointed (by the public defender’s office) to represent someone when there is a conflict with the public defender’s office. In other words, if two suspects get arrested in a case, if one of them makes statements against the interests of the other one, a conflict may exist and necessitate separate attorneys for each of them. But having the public defender’s office to determine when or if a conflict exists, and then appointing a conflict attorney from its own staff, and then not paying him/her is even too funny for Saturday Night Live.

    • Hey Lynell
      ,
      Thanks for the serious thought and taking the time to make comments.
      I agree with you for some of your comments, and you are as wrong as I am for saying the D.A. controls the IDP payroll.He does influence it substantially.
      I’m not a legal person but I have been seriously involved in the system for several years, if you read the blog further you can see this.
      For example, the 150 Rule applies to the IDP. It also applies to Diversion, and Probation and Parole. I’m not sure about the Domestic Violence section, but I’m learning it’s probably stuck with the 150 Rule also.
      What the Rule is that each public defender has 150 clients! When you have 150 clients, you can only deal with the ‘worst’ cases, everyone else gets a free ride most of the time. That means an unprepared PD, who has too many cases by far.Originally Diversion candidates had a counselor who talked to them and they got to know each other. Then Diversion became popular with more Judges and the ADAs, and each day, dozens entered the system. Pretty soon the Counselors were just caretakers who let their assignees go for months at a time, then sends them a letter to cover his/her ass, telling them to report or get kicked out of the program.Then the process repeats.

      PDs don’t get assigned anyone, they all initially and very briefly represent all just arrested in their initial Magistrate court appearance if your attorney’s not present.The Magistrate questions the arrested person as to their financial ability to pay.If you tell the Magistrate you can pay, which most don’t, he/she assigns a PD. There are way bigger issues here, most defendants will find their bail money but very often won’t pay for a private attorney. I’ve witnessed the Criminal Judges tightening up their financial talks with those arrested to try to get them to pay for an attorney.

      I don’t know where the PDs come from, but they rotate fairly quickly out when they realize the screw job they signed up for.The system is rotten from the inside with all the money going to the wrong places. They need to have a ton of well paid folks with real skills to fix Diversion, Probation and Parole, Indigent Defender, etc.

      The conflict rule has been abused, but a real need exists fundamentally.

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