The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana filed a class-action lawsuit yesterday evening against the Orleans Parish public defenders’ office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board over the office’s placement of new clients on a waiting list for representation due to a shortage of public defenders. Like others who have been arrested in Orleans Parish, our plaintiffs Douglas Brown, Leroy Shaw Jr., and Darwin Yarls Jr. are on the list because they can’t afford a private attorney. Their lack of legal representation violates their Sixth Amendment rights.
“So long as you’re on the public defender waiting list in New Orleans, you’re helpless. Your legal defense erodes along with your constitutional rights,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “With every hour without an attorney, you may forever lose invaluable opportunities to build your defense. You also may be forced into a crippling choice between waiting months for counsel or doing bail and plea negotiations yourself. The damage to your case can be irreparable.”
The Orleans Parish public defender’s office created the waiting list because it is running out of money to pay its attorneys and fulfill its mission.
“In Orleans Parish, as in the rest of Louisiana, funding for public defenders is inherently unreliable and prone to crippling shortages,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “To pay for public defense, the state relies on the fines and fees collected from the public for traffic tickets and other convictions — a system that makes public defenders dependent on excessive policing and draconian sentencing that work against the people they defend.”
At least three other parishes in Louisiana have waiting lists for public defenders.
“By relying on a ‘user-funded’ scheme to fund public defense, the state of Louisiana has put the Sixth Amendment in peril,” said Buskey. “Repeated staff shortages, waiting lists, and other public defense crises have shown that conviction fees can’t provide steady or adequate funds to public defender offices. The state must meet its constitutional obligation to its people and invest in public defense.”
In addition to the ACLU and the ACLU of Louisiana, Anna Lellelid, William Quigley, and Emily Faye Ratner represent the plaintiffs.