Court certifies class action in SPLC lawsuit against Louisiana’s public defender system

A Louisiana court has certified a class action lawsuit from the SPLC that challenges the constitutionality and funding structure of the state’s overburdened public defender system.

The lawsuit argues that the state’s public defender system fails to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. 

The decision represents a significant step forward in the battle against mass incarceration. It is also an unequivocal statement by the Louisiana judiciary that it will not turn a blind eye to the inadequacies of a funding scheme that relies primarily on fines and fees generated through traffic tickets and sentences that are imposed on poor people. 

The case is set to go to trial in January. 

“For decades, the state has allowed the public defense system to be underfunded and unmonitored,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the SPLC.  “This statewide problem demands a statewide solution.” 

The court rejected arguments by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the state public defender, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board, that sought to lay blame for the public defender system’s failure solely on the state Legislature.

Instead, the ruling recognizes that Edwards is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the state meets its constitutional obligation. It further recognizes that the state’s alleged failure to maintain an adequate public defender system affects all poor defendants in the state.

Earlier this year, the Louisiana Public Defender Board issued an annual report in which Chief Public Defender Jay Dixon acknowledged the breakdown of the system.

“The workload of our attorneys is almost five times what it should be,” the report said. “Public defenders in Louisiana cannot possibly provide constitutionally adequate representation with workloads of this magnitude, and it is the poor of this state who suffer for it.”

The SPLC filed the lawsuit in February 2017 with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and two prominent law firms: Davis, Polk & Wardwell LLP; and Jones Walker LLP.