It's true now that budgets are tight. It was true then when budgets were, um, less tight.
The poor don't have much of a lobby. The criminally accused (and convicted) don't have much of a lobby. The poor and criminally accused (and convicted) really don't have much of a lobby.
|Clarence Earl Gideon|
The Gideon of Gideon v. Wainwright. The one who sent a pencil-written cert petition to the berobed ones in the nation's capital and established the principle that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to counsel. The one who was then represented in that Court by Abe Fortas because the Supremes knew that he needed a lawyer to speak for him there. The one who then got a new trial, and this time, with the assistance of counsel, was acquitted. That guy.
But like I say, the money's tight. And really nobody much except a few bleeding hearts and criminal defense lawyers actually gives a shit about them. Yet they're entitled to counsel. Not just any old counsel, either. They're entitled to competent counsel, to the effective assistance of counsel.
But it costs money. And nobody has much, and the little there is, well, there are so many more worthy causes.
- Multi-district and agency task forces
- SWAT Teams
- The Lenco Bearcat (for which your local cops can get a grant)
Really, there's no end of stuff to spend money on. Public defense? Not so much. Consider New Orleans where things are a mess. According to a report by John Simerman in the Times-Picayune (and is there a better name for a newspaper anywhere?) there are some 543 indigent defendants in New Orleans without counsel. Meanwhile the public defender staff is shrinking.
The layoffs at the public defender's office, which took effect Wednesday, include 21 lawyers and six other employees, many of them experienced veterans.According to Judge Arthur Hunter, it's a "constitutional emergency."
This is not, however, another post about the effort to cut funding for public defenders. (You can find those by searching the archives; I've written several.) No, this is a post about someone who's trying to do something about the problem.
|Judge Arthur Hunter|
Aiming to cast a spotlight on heavy bloodletting this month at the Orleans Parish public defender's office, a judge this week ordered some big names in New Orleans politics, media and legal circles to represent dozens of poor people left without free lawyers.You get the idea. Make it so that the people who have the means to address the problem feel it personally. Judge Hunter can't make them into indigent defendants, but he can make them deal with the problem. At least he's trying to.
Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter declined on Wednesday to explain his hand-picked choices of lawyers for 32 criminal defendants, but the list obtained by The Times-Picayune makes clear he wants to spread the word over what he called a "constitutional emergency."
The roster includes state Sens. Jean Paul Morrell, Karen Peterson and Edwin Murray; Times-Picayune publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. and Gambit co-owner Clancy DuBos; Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche; and frequent media legal commentators Robert Jenkins, Dane Ciolino and Joseph Raspanti, among others.
Hunter assigned each of them cases and ordered them to appear in court next week. Nearly all are lawyers, although Hunter appears to have mistakenly picked at least one who is not. Some on the list have little or no criminal court experience.
Which doesn't mean it's going smoothly.
|Senator Karen Peterson|
Peterson immediately filed a motion to withdraw from the case because of work for the upcoming legislative session, she said.Never ever. Can't be more never than that.
"And secondly, I've never, ever appeared or represented anyone in criminal court," she said. "I practice commercial transactions."
Now, I don't want to impugn the integrity, passion, commitment, or anything else of Senator Peterson or anyone else whose legal practice is exclusively commercial transactions and about whom I know essentially nothing but what I just read on her senate website and in Simerman's article. I believe her "never ever." And I suspect that she would have said last week, and will say next week, that indigent defense is really important but that so is highway infrastructure and the need to maintain the dykes that keep the Gulf of Mexico out of New Orleans and maybe there's some tax incentives that will bring new business to the French Quarter and have you seen what our public schools look like, and the price of a gallon of milk and then there's the Affordable Health Care Act which she does or does not support. I mean, gee, there's so much to do. And so little money. But really, indigent defense is very important and an obligation I'm sure she has always taken very seriously.
And frankly, if I were Kayla Brignac I wouldn't be all that excited about having her as my lawyer. I mean, aside from the glory of being represented by a state senator, there's the whole thing about competent representation, and my guess is that Kayla'd rather have a lawyer who knew what the hell alprazolam is - or at least how to find it in the drug schedules - than a lawyer who knows how to draft a lease agreement for a big box store. More, I'd guess that Kayla'd rather have a lawyer whose focused on her case than on the really important stuff like the "upcoming legislative session."
But that's OK. I don't imagine most of these folks will actually be doing any real representing. They'll be allowed to withdraw, or they'll hire, as at least one did (perhaps for the price of a good bottle of cognac) an actual practicing criminal defense lawyer to
Hunter's point, in any case, surely isn't to force these folks to learn how to defend criminal cases. It's to make them realize in a visceral way that the indigent accused - men, women, boys, girls - are real people with real needs. And that there's a real obligation, a constitutionally mandated obligation, to see to those needs. It's personal for them. Make it personal for these upstanding citizens.
Which is a fine and noble idea. And probably none of the folks getting the high-powered but low-skilled representation will be hurt.
And, sadly, probably nothing will come of it.
|Senator Jean Paul Morrell|
honor to have the opportunity to represent the citizens of District 3 in the Louisiana Senate and I look forward to working with you to build a better Louisiana.Good for him. Of course, that construction project doesn't seem to entail doing much for the indigent accused. He told Simerman.
If this is an attempt to embarrass people into acknowledging the indigent defense issue, it's kind of a poor one. I guess it's great for press. I don't know if it's great for the people who he's getting involved. We're already aware of the problem.So. It's not "great" for the folks like Morrell who are being dragged into the courtroom. How sad. My guess is that it wasn't intended for their enjoyment.
And really, what's the point? After all, they're aware. Which is all you can ask, isn't it? I mean, really, what more is there?
Besides, some police department might want a tank.
Let them eat cake.
H/t - Elie Mystal at Above the Law