Legal Matters

Local public defender refusing criminal cases G. Paul Marx says criminal justice is “at a halt” in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes.

by Leslie Turk

G. Paul Marx says criminal justice is “at a halt” in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes.

Public Defender G. Paul Marx
Photo by Robin May

Within a week of the Orleans Parish Public Defenders’ Office and the Louisiana Public Defender Board being slapped with a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union over the shortage of lawyers to handle indigent cases, the head of the office that provides attorneys for poor defenders in the Lafayette region confirms that budgetary problems now have it officially refusing to handle some criminal cases.

That ACLU lawsuit, which claims the lack of legal representation violates the Sixth Amendment rights of due process for new clients, came on the heels of the Orleans Public Defender’s office’s Jan. 11 announcement that it had started refusing some felony cases where defendants face lengthy or life sentences and that a shortage of public defenders is resulting in many clients being placed on waiting lists.

Citing the “Restriction of Services Protocol” mandated by the Louisiana Public Defender Board, 15th Judicial District Public Defender G. Paul Marx this week says much of the same is happening here and throughout many of the state’s remaining 40 judicial districts.

Nine attorney positions in the local office have been terminated, leaving 22 full-time and 33 contract attorneys handling the workload. Cases related to those cuts — the local policy affects only defendants who are not in jail, with incarcerated clients getting priority — are posted to a waiting list, which means the criminal justice process is “at a halt” in Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion parishes, Marx says. The attorneys who do remain are now subject to a 17 percent reduction in pay.

Marx says the action is consistent with the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Citizen, which established that district courts should halt prosecutions in cases where effective counsel is unfunded.

The district defender explains that drastic steps had to be taken to meet a projected budget shortfall of $250,000 or more in the fiscal year ending June 30. “Essentially our local revenue sources are not keeping up with historic levels, the State Public Defender Board is out of money to assist me, and legal ethics requires that over a certain level of overload my lawyers cannot take any more cases. The result is a formal, legally required process of reducing services that will impact clients and court processes,” he says in a Jan. 19 statement.

Marx says this issue is not new. He says the local program, which has a $4 million annual budget, got the bulk of its funding from state board’s District Assistance Fund, which was able to supplement local funds but hasn’t seen an increase in the past six years. With state government now in such dire financial straits, no assistance is expected this year.

Local funding sources, like Lafayette City Court traffic tickets, have also been squeezed. “In talking to Chief [Jim] Craft, there has been an impact from the speed vans and red light cameras, resulting in fewer traditional citations through traffic court,” Marx tells ABiz. “The revenue from the automated enforcement goes to the private company and the city police budget. There are less police officers needed for regular court based enforcement [he says the city is down to five traffic enforcement officers], which seems to be causing less citations in the traditional court where $45 in costs is allotted to the Indigent Defender Fund.”

The workload of the local district is in the top four in the state, according to Marx, with annual felony filings of about 8,000 cases, almost 12,000 traffic cases and 10,000 misdemeanors in city and district courts.

“We have the restraints of ethical rules, statutory law and Constitutional Law that simply don’t allow me to act as if a lawyer can do the impossible work of representation no matter how many cases he is assigned,” Marx says in the written statement. “...We cannot meet our duty to provide effective representation, and I’m not going to force clients to bear the damage by giving them half-hearted counsel just to move things along. ... The sad reality is that the vast majority of the people incarcerated in this district are poor people there for relatively minor, non-violent offenses. Unfortunately these are the people who are affected the most by cuts as they are forced to wait longer and longer for their cases to be resolved.”