With more cuts looming, local lawyers step up to keep criminal defense limping along

by Walter Pierce

About 150 local attorneys — the majority of them lawyers who specialize in civil matters — have stepped forward over the last 11 months to volunteer their services for criminal cases amid a funding crisis for public defender offices in Louisiana.

About 150 local attorneys — the majority of them lawyers who specialize in real estate, insurance, wills and other civil matters — have stepped forward over the last 11 months to volunteer their services for criminal cases amid a funding crisis for public defender offices in Louisiana. The Lafayette judge who began soliciting their services early last year says he’s been amazed and gratified by the rally of support.

“I was pretty overwhelmed by their response, to be honest with you, because I know it’s nothing but a pain,” admits 15th Judicial District Judge Patrick Michot. “Lawyers do have a duty to represent the indigent, but we all know the reality of the world and how things go — especially when people don’t have experience in a certain matter. But, I think by and large they realize the direness of the situation.”

The dire situation came to the public’s attention last year when G. Paul Marx, the chief public defender for the district, announced that he was being forced to gut his staff, sending more than two dozen part-time contract attorneys packing and laying off or accepting the resignations of more than half the full-time staff amid state budget cuts for public defenders in Louisiana. In 2016, Marx told this newspaper at the time, his funding was about $600,000 below where it had been the year before. The 15th JDC comprises Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes — a total population of just under 350,000 people. When it was fully funded, the local Public Defenders Office employed 14 full-time staff attorneys — full-time public defenders are prohibited from having private practices — and 28 part-time contract attorneys who worked varying hours. In 2015, the office handled nearly 13,000 new cases, more than half of which carried over to 2016. But in January of last year Marx announced that his office would postpone representing misdemeanor defendants who aren’t currently in jail.

Judge Patrick Michot at a criminal defense training session last year at the Lafayette Bar office
Photo by Robin May

Soon after, Michot stepped forward and put out a call to local attorneys to pitch in. By March, Michot and Marx were giving attorneys who had never tried a criminal case before crash courses in criminal law.

“Sometimes attorneys would tell me, ‘Look, I’m too old to learn something new like this,’” Michot recalls with a chuckle. But overall, he says, the response was swift and enthusiastic, and Michot admits his altruism was also born of self interest: “I was trying to take care of my docket, to be honest with you. I have this docket and I see these people sitting there in court and trying to get representation, I just feel this need: what are we going to do about it. I’m a public servant — I was elected to this job, I guess you say for better or for worse. These people don’t have representation; I just took it upon myself to call attorneys. I didn’t make a secret about it or anything.”

The longest-tenured judge in the district, Michot treaded lightly with his new wards, almost exclusively assigning them cases that were likely to be plea-bargained or had a good chance of resulting in probation. He was reluctant to assign civil attorneys to cases where a defendant could face jail time, and he only assigned them to defendants who were not incarcerated.

“There were some who went in there, and I could tell by the look on their face that they were pretty nervous about it,” Michot recalls. “Everybody has their own threshold of risk taking and what they’re willing to do.”

One case did go to trial, and the volunteer attorney, who had never represented a criminal defendant before, got a “not guilty” verdict.

Last year, in the depths of the funding crisis — as the Orleans Parish Jail was releasing inmates awaiting trial because they were lingering in jail without representation — the Legislature passed a law protecting state public defender offices from further cuts. But, as The Advocate reported in mid January, that may not stand. Gov. John Bel Edwards has called lawmakers into a special session that begins this month, and Edwards has said that with a $313 million deficit to close in the current fiscal year, no agency is safe from cuts.

According to The Advocate’s Jan. 14 report:

With the state facing a $313 million revenue shortfall this year, Gov. John Bel Edwards has warned state agencies they could face budget cuts of 5 percent. And despite the 2016 law, his administration doesn’t feel obliged to grant a blanket exemption to the Louisiana Public Defender Board, arguing that the constitutional responsibility to balance the budget trumps the state law in question.

State Public Defender Jay Dixon said he is not likely to challenge the governor’s stance, noting that Edwards is in a “hard position” and is perhaps not the right guy to pick a fight with.

“I could sue the person that controls my funds, but how does that sound?” Dixon said, referring to Edwards. “And what’s to stop the administration from cutting my budget by the exact same amount next year?”

The upshot is that Louisiana’s next attempt to balance its budget — likely at a special session of the Legislature next month — could bring more pain for public defenders, who may not be any more exempt from cuts than higher education or health care.

Louisiana pays for indigent defense in large part with money collected through traffic tickets, which have declined sharply in some areas. Dixon’s state office has money to supplement the local defenders’ budgets, but he didn’t have enough last year to make up the shortfall in places like New Orleans, where dozens of defendants had been placed on waiting lists for attorneys.

So the board overseeing the state’s public defense system last month declared a “state of emergency” for Louisiana’s indigent defendants, and Dixon asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson to approve that action, which she did. That was supposed to prevent the governor from lopping off any of Dixon’s budget until the emergency is dealt with, per the terms of the new state law.

But budget math may prevail over legal niceties.

G. Paul Marx (in back, speaking next to microphone), head of the local public defenders office, leads a training session last year for civil-law attorneys.
Photo by Robin May

Michot admits that it’s not lost on him that state lawmakers, faced with excruciating budget choices again this year, might take note of how local legal communities are rallying and decide that non-criminal attorneys taking criminal cases pro bono should, conveniently, become the status quo.

“I hope that it’s not the new normal, but I fear that it could be,” he says. “There’s been no funding mechanism put into place that’s going to solve the problem at this point.”

Yet at the same time, Michot says, he doesn’t worry that this is enabling lawmakers; even with the phalanx of volunteer lawyers, the local public defender offices are still abysmally understaffed and the criminal divisions in local judicial districts are still running way behind: “If they look at it realistically and see how many criminal tracks there are and how many tracks are actually staffed with volunteers, you can see that the numbers are woefully short,” the jurist says.

Most of the attorneys who have volunteered their time have only taken one relatively easy — by criminal defense standards — case. Michot says he hasn’t had to return to any attorneys and ask them to take additional cases and knows that if it does come to that he will certainly started getting more rejections. (Judges can legally compel non-criminal attorneys to take criminal cases, but when attorneys are legally ordered to take such cases they’re also legally entitled to be reimbursed for expenses associated with criminal defense; right now the 15th JDC is getting this work for free because the attorneys are voluntarily taking the cases, for which Michot is grateful.)

“I do want to express my thanks, and all of our thanks, to all of these attorneys. It makes me proud to be part of the profession, and I can’t say that about every situation I’m involved in every day,” Michot says, adding with a chuckle: “That’s definitely something I can say is a good feeling, and you don’t get that many good feelings in this job every day.”

Michot’s office provided a list of the attorneys who have volunteered their services for indigent criminal defense. In the interest of big, public attaboy, here they are:

Joslyn Alex, Marcus Allen, Benjamin Alexander, Warren Ashy, Chris Bailey, William Bailey, David Balfour, Tim Basden, James Bayard, Jeremy Bazile, Aaron Beyt, Charmaine Borne, Reule Bourque, Alfred Boustany, Charles Brandt, Robert Brandt, Marcus Bryant, James Brazee, Alan Breaud, Bart Broussard, James Broussard, Travis Broussard, Rebekah Brown, Benjamin Burns, Brian Capell, Ross Cieardo, Danielle Clairborne, Donald Cleveland, Bradley Cockrell, Lucas Colligan, Hailey Coreil, Errol Cormier, Tracy Curtis, Karnina Dargin, Frank Dawkins, Laura Davenport; Davidson, Meaux, Sonnier, MeElligott, Fontenot, Gideon & Edwards Law Firm; Ken Dejean, James Dill, Jimmy Domengeaux, Kevin Duck, Gabe Duhon, Steven J. Dupuis; Durio, McGoffm, Stagg 8z Ackermann Law Firm; Byrne Edwards, Chris Edwards, Evan Edwards, Anthony Fazzio, Grant Freeman, Kay Karre Gautreaux, Rusty Galloway, Valerie Gotch Garrett, Lester Gauthier, Stan Gauthier, Trent Gauthier, Joseph C. Giglio, Jr., William Goforth, Anna Grand, Thomas Guilbeau, Aaron Guidry, Randy Guidry, Katherine Guillot, Richard Haik, Stanton Hardee III, Jacob Hargett, Dylan Heard, Thomas Hightower, Trey Hightower, Mike Hill, Hoai Hoang, Jane Hogan, Scott Isles, Jon Jefcoat, Jordan John, Matt Jones, Robert Kallam, William Kaufman, Wade Kee, Dan Kennison, James Klock, Gregory Koury, Alice Landry, Benjamin Landry, Donald Landry, William Large, Randy Lasseigne, Chris Lee, Craig Little, Austin Love, Pat Magee, Chase Manuel, G. Paul Marx, Jason Matt, Miles Matt, Bethlyn Meyers, Randy McCann, Matt McConnell, Shane McCormick, Steven McGinity, Gary MeGoffin, Ronald Melebeck, Chane Menard, Mildred Methvin, Charles Middleton, John Milton, John Mowell, Justin Mueller, JoAnn Nixon, Shawn O’Neill, Elena Pecoraro, Kasey Pharis, Kirk Piccione, Raven Pillette, Jordan Precht, Edwin Preis, Harold Register III, Harold Register Jr., John L. Robert, Chaz Roberts, Jason Robideaux, Jennifer Robinson, Charles “Chuck” Rush, Barry Sallinger, Arthur Schafer, Jocelin Sias, Geralyn Siefker, Dwa Smith, Richard Spears, William Stagg, Kevin Stockstill, Gregory Thibodeaux, Danielle Thompson, Christopher Trahan, Ferdinand Valteau III , Chris Villemarette, Jonathan Villien, Donald Washington, Skylar Washington, David Way, John Wilkes, Jonathan Woods, George Wright, Adam Young