Response: Public Defender's Office Not Holding Up Its End

Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton responds to | The Times-Picayune contributing op-ed:

One of my law professors once said, "A little bit of legal knowledge is a dangerous thing." Another one of my law professors said, "Ignorance of the facts is fatal to any case." They must have foreseen Craig Mordock's opinion piece. So a quick look at the law is important.

Louisiana law limits the court's role in the appointment of counsel to determining indigency. When – as with the 110ers case – the court bypasses the public defenders office, the court is responsible for reasonable defense costs through its Judicial Expense Fund. RS 15:75(A)(i)(3).

The long story is The Orleans Public Defenders Office (OPD) and the courts are incredibly thankful and grateful the private bar stepped up and volunteered to represent those accused in the so-called gang indictments. OPD made clear from the beginning our staff was hopelessly conflicted off the cases and woefully underfunded to assign them to contract counsel. OPD was also grateful the City of New Orleans subsequently made funds available to pay for representation in these cases with the stipulation those funds be administered by OPD, utilizing our contract program. OPD assumed the cases already covered by volunteer attorneys would be handled.

To access the funds, the court and counsel must simply comply with OPD's process. Specifically, lawyers must apply to our contractor program and the case assignment must be converted to OPD, per the city's stipulation. In fact, in another section of court, this process is already underway. This year, OPD has already paid approximately $729,000 to fund conflict representation – which includes gang prosecutions.

The short story is we are doing our part.

The biggest issue is the one Mr. Mordock failed to address: the crisis in our public defense funding system. Louisiana's public defenders lack stable, reliable and adequate funding. Our criminal justice system is financed by woefully insufficient user fees. Complex cases like these gang prosecutions place an impossible strain on public defense resources. Statewide, two dozen public defender offices will be bankrupt by 2016, forcing service restrictions (case refusals) around the state. These refusals will ensure more discomfort for the Craig Mordock's of our legal community and divert our attention from what really matters: a system that is fair, efficient and just – not only for the criminal defense attorneys, but for all Louisianans.

Read the original opinion piece at | The Times-Picayune here.

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