Established after adoption of the Louisiana Constitution of 1974, the Public Defender Office was formerly known as the “Indigent Defender” office because the law referred to providing counsel for “indigents”, considered very poor and unable to pay legal fees.  Today many people who are employed are found to be unable to afford a lawyer, and the law has changed the name of the program to “Public Defender”, recognizing that people who cannot hire a private attorney have a right to counsel provided by the public.  More than 95% of the people in criminal court are represented by the public defender in the present Criminal Justice system.

Starting in 2004, public defenders began to push for change that would allow these offices across the state to serve clients just like any other law firm.  Then, the public defenders, through a La Public Defenders Association, urged adoption of trial performance standards by the state defender board.  This process evolved and finally in 2007 Louisiana passed the Public Defender Act by nearly unanimous vote of the legislature.  Act 307 of 2007 is the foundation for our organization, for regulations and professionalism, including Trial Performance Standards, which amount to regulations with the force of law (although not relied on for any claims of ineffective counsel).

The public defenders are an important independent component of the criminal justice system.  There is a job to do for them, just as the Judges, District Attorneys, Clerks, Court Reporters and others have an important function in Criminal Justice, Public Defenders make the system work.  In a way, we like to consider our role as part of law enforcement, because we make certain the law is followed when the court deals with our clients.

1963 – U.S. Supreme Court – Gideon v Wainwright

The Supreme Court rules that every person facing loss of liberty in a criminal trial must be provided appointed counsel if they cannot afford to hire their own.  In Louisiana, the State Supreme Court followed most other states and ruled that lawyers would have to take these cases at no fee under a theory of a public duty.  Because being a lawyer was a great thing, the court saw the free work on criminal cases as a professional “give back”.

1974 – La. Constitution – District Indigent Defenders

By 1974 the Louisiana Constitutional Convention saw that when you make people do something “free” its tough to get the best. Criminal Law is no simple matter, and the members of the bar were bristling under the workload.  The 1974 Convention created a State PD Board and Local PD Boards appointed by the Judges, who paid fees to attorneys for “indigent defendants”.

2007 – Act 307 – Trial Performance Standards

By 2007 Criminal Justice was rife with “wrongful convictions” and the fact was folks weren’t getting effective assistance. Most parts of the state had part-time public defenders who were assigned too many cases, and the control by judges made lawyers worry more about that boss than the clients.  Studies showed things were sometimes very poorly organized: in one district the public defender was paid out of the desk drawer of a judge’s secretary.  Supreme Court Justice Pascal Calagero had established a state board and there was a statewide Appellate Program.  The Public Defenders were specialists in Criminal Justice, and the Legislature nearly unanimously reorganized the state, dissolving local boards and created a state oversight board.

Trial Performance Standards were enacted, and things got more organized. In 2010 the State Board, in the wake of a study by the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, named G. Paul Marx to the District Defender post.  The report had found a lack of leadership during some 10 years after Marx returned to private practice.  While he was gone from the chief defender’s office, his time was spent working for reform and representing in appointed cases for appeals and in federal court as part of his private practice.

Currently

The 15th Judicial District is Louisiana’s 4th largest, and the Public Defender’s Office is making a return to the leadership role it traditionally held from 1980 to 2004, with innovations in Juvenile Justice, a full time component, and an important reliance on the private bar through Legal Service Agreements by which lawyers take some public defender cases.  So the Acadiana program is a hybrid of public and private counsel working to satisfy the Trial Performance Standards which impose legal requirements for getting the job done.

JUVENILE JUSTICE is one of our priorities, lead by Team Leader Janet Brown.  Kids have a Right to Counsel and going to criminal court is not the same as going to the principal’s office: convictions and sanctions in juvenile court have a major impact on our kids future.  The Public Defender is there to make sure that the legal rules for kids are complied with.

More than 95% of the people in criminal court are represented by the public defender in the present Criminal Justice system.  Major changes in the system, which was required by the United States Supreme Court in Gideon vs Wainwright, took place in 1974 and 2007.  The present structure in Acadiana’s 15th Judicial District is a Public/Private cooperative, with full time lawyers at the core of the work and expert private trial counsel handling many of the hundreds of cases assigned to the office by the courts.

The public defenders are an important independent component of the criminal justice system.  There is a job to do for them, just as the Judges, District Attorneys, Clerks, Court Reporters and others have an important function in Criminal Justice, Public Defenders make the system work.  In a way, we like to consider our role as part of law enforcement, because we make certain the law is followed when the court deals with our clients.