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Court Certifies Statewide Class Action in Lawsuit Challenging Systemic Deficiencies in Louisiana Public Defense System

Decision Paves Way for Statewide Reforms that Could Impact 50,000 Louisianans

BATON ROUGE, LA. – A Louisiana trial court yesterday granted class-action status to a lawsuit that challenges the state’s broken public defense system, creating a path for system-wide reforms for people in need of appointed counsel.  The case, Allen et. al. v. Bel Edwards et. al, is set to go to trial in January.

The trial court’s decision certifies a class of all individuals in Louisiana who are charged with non-capital criminal offenses and are represented by a public defender. The class consists of approximately 50,000 individuals, likely the largest indigent defense case ever. Now that the case is certified as a statewide class action, the trial court is empowered to issue a ruling that would require improvements to the entire public defense system.

For far too long, indigent defendants in Louisiana have been at the mercy of Louisiana’s broken public defender system, which has failed time and time again to guarantee the right to meaningful and effective counsel,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This ruling is a major step forward in our collective fight to provide constitutional protections to those who have been left defenseless across the State. We are proud to represent all those accused of noncapital crimes—who, in Louisiana as elsewhere, are disproportionately African American— and look forward to proving our case at trial in January. We will continue fighting to address the ways in which race infects our criminal justice system in Louisiana and deem this case a critical part of that ongoing work.”

“The trial court’s decision acknowledges the undeniable: Louisiana’s public defender system is broken across the entire state and endangers every individual charged with a crime who cannot afford his or her own attorney,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “For decades, the State has allowed the public defense system to be underfunded, unmonitored, and shamefully inadequate. This statewide problem demands a statewide solution.”

In ruling for the Plaintiffs, Judge Todd Hernandez rejected Defendants’ argument that Governor John Bel Edwards, the State Public Defender, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board have no obligation to establish a public defense system that satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. The ruling further acknowledges that Defendants’ alleged failure to maintain an adequate system commonly impacts all indigent defendants in the state.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in February 2017 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP.

In addition to certifying the class, the trial court also denied Defendants’ motion to exclude the expert testimony of public defense expert Robert Boruchowitz. Boruchowitz had submitted a damning report to the court describing how heavy caseloads prevent Louisiana public defenders from conducting adequate investigations and noting that the State’s public defenders virtually never hire expert witnesses. The report also outlined how poor people charged with crimes routinely wait weeks – or even months – in jail before a public defender is appointed. The result, according to the report, is a criminal justice system where judges, public defenders and prosecutors have become accustomed to a culture that habitually violates the rights of indigent defendants.

 

Boruchowitz, a Seattle University School of Law professor, conducted and oversaw visits to nearly 20 of Louisiana’s parishes for the report. His conclusions are based on court observations, a review of records, and interviews with public defenders and other criminal justice stakeholders.

In rejecting Defendants’ motion, the trial court concluded that Boruchowitz was a qualified expert and that his report’s methodology was sound.

The trial court’s rulings today represent only the latest in a series of wins for the Plaintiffs in this case. Last August, the trial court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit and concluded that Plaintiffs had stated a viable cause of action. A state appellate court later affirmed that decision.

The case is set for trial in front of Judge Hernandez of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge in January 2019.

 

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