The fallout from severe layoffs at the Orleans Parish public defender's office came to an early head Friday inside a criminal courtroom. After a hearing in which Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton faced a litany of questions about his budget woes, Judge Arthur Hunter said he would farm out dozens of indigent cases to private lawyers.
Whether there are enough of them willing to handle those cases for free is unclear.
The layoffs, which take effect next week, include 21 lawyers and six other employees of the public defender's office. Bunton axed his entire division of attorneys representing poor clients with some kind of conflict - usually because the office already represents a co-defendant.
Bunton testified Friday that 543 defendants now find themselves without attorneys on cases ranging from state misdemeanors to murders. Just how many are sitting in jail is unclear.
"This is not a constitutional crisis. This is a constitutional emergency," Hunter said.
Hunter said he would seek private lawyers to represent the 33 indigent defendants left without attorneys in his court section. He could end up ordering them to take the cases.
Hunter rejected a bid by private contract lawyers who asked to withdraw from a half-dozen cases because the public defender's office is refusing to pay them. Bunton, who stopped the contract payments as of Jan. 16, said it's not clear those lawyers will ever get paid for the work beyond that date. At last check, he said, his office owed about $200,000 in back pay for contract lawyers.
Contract lawyers handle more than 300 indigent cases, including capital defendants, Bunton said. One of the them, Miles Swanson, said he and others planned to appeal Hunter's ruling.
Along with the layoffs, Bunton ordered pay cuts of 5 percent to 10 percent for top managers and supervisors and two days of furlough each month for all employees.
The cuts are expected to save just more than $1 million, as the office seeks to shrink its budget from $9.5 million to about $7 million.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's push to accept far more cases and bring more to trial is partly to blame for the budget crunch, Bunton said.
Public defenders represent about 80 percent of criminal defendants in Orleans Parish, where the court system saw 6,700 new felony cases last year, up 31 percent from 2008.
"Trial rate, high acceptance, all that's a part of the cost of litigation," Bunton said. "It's not hard to figure out they can generate a whole lot more work than we can handle."
The public defender's office gets most of its money from the state under a formula based largely on caseloads and from fees levied on criminal, municipal and traffic convictions - money that has fallen far short of projections.
On Monday, the Louisiana Public Defender Board plans to launch an audit of Traffic Court to search for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees slated for indigent defense that the court allegedly withheld.
The city also allotted $1.25 million this year to the office from traffic camera fees, but it's not enough, Bunton said.
Critics, meanwhile, argue that Bunton's office could help itself, but has been lax in collecting a $40 statutory fee from poor defendants.
By John Simerman, email@example.com, 504-826-333006