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Suing for the Defense

SPLC video "Injustice"
Joseph Allen

“Everybody needs somebody to fight for them, and just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I need to be treated any different,” says Joseph Allen.

He one of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Governor John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Indigent Defender Board, filed Monday in state District Court in Baton Rouge. It is challenging the way the state funds public defenders.

“Louisiana has a broken criminal justice system, the only public defender system that is financed primarily by court fines and fees,” says Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Her group, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jones Walker LLP and Davis, Polk and Wardwell LLP, are asking that the state’s funding scheme for indigent defense be declared unconstitutional, since it “often results in people being denied due process”.

Plaintiffs in the suit – who are also defendants in criminal cases – talked about their plights in an SPLC video released Monday.

“I’ve seen my lawyer one time in the 8 months that I’ve been here,” says Stephen Ayres, who is in the Winnfield City Jail, awaiting trial.

“My public defender has not explained to me what my charges mean or what I’m facing,” says Allen, a Baton Rouge resident looked in in Point Coupee Parish.

“It makes me feel like I am being charged guilty, without even having the chance to prove my innocence,” says Angela Hurlburt, who is also jailed in Winn Parish.

During Monday’s conference call with lawyers involved in the suit, the state’s ongoing budget problems were brought up – as possible “extenuating circumstances”. But Mark Cunningham with Jones Walker LLP says that is not pertinent.

“The defendant’s constitutional rights are not contingent upon budget demands, and the rule of law is not contingent upon budget demands. And so now is the time for the courts to intercede.”

A similar suit, filed in federal court against the New Orleans public defenders’ office by the ACLU, was dismissed last week. In doing so, federal District Judge James A. Brady pointed back to the Louisiana legislature for solutions.