MELISSA BLOCK, host:
New Orleans judge Arthur Hunter is so angered by the quality of legal representation for the poor in his city that he's ordered the release of as many as 42 criminal defendants who are in jail awaiting trial. He calls the public defender system a legal hell that has festered and is finally boiling over.
On Friday, Judge Hunter issued an order in which he wrote: Indigent defense in New Orleans is unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking the basic professional standards of legal representation and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western, civilized nation. Well, Christine Lehman essentially made that case in hearings before Judge Hunter. She's counsel for special litigation for the Orleans Parish Public Defender's Office. Thanks for being with us.
Ms. CHRISTINE LEHMAN (Counsel for Special Litigation, Orleans Parish Public Defender's Office): Thank you.
BLOCK: And it sounds like you were in the odd position of saying, essentially, we are doing a lousy job as public defenders.
Ms. LEHMAN: It is a very odd position to be in.
BLOCK: Well, it sounds like the key problem is the overwhelming caseload among public defenders. Why don't you give us a sense of scale here. How many cases would one attorney be handling?
Ms. LEHMAN: Well, in this litigation, we talked about one attorney in particular because it is the attorney who is representing clients in front of Judge Hunter, and his name is Powell Miller(ph), and he counted up his cases at the time we had the hearing, and he had approximately 164.
BLOCK: And I think he actually testified before Judge Hunter saying look, I'm making plea deals for these clients, and I really have no understanding of what the case is.
Ms. LEHMAN: Absolutely. He said that his normal practice, and it's the only thing that the volume of cases allows, is that he'll meet the client in court, the district attorney will give him some discovery - you know, a police report basically. He'll talk to the client then, and then possibly plead that client right there. There's no investigation that's been done. He's never been able to meet the client in jail.
BLOCK: Judge Hunter said last week in his order: Hurricane Katrina is no longer an excuse. What happened to your office after Katrina, and are things any better now?
Ms. LEHMAN: Well, the thing to realize this is that the system, the public defender system, has been broken for decades in New Orleans. And really Katrina was just - it was an exacerbation, but it also just was a window onto how bad the system was. What happened with Katrina itself is that it completely decimated the office, because the office's primary funding is traffic tickets, and of course there were no traffic tickets being written in a flooded city.
BLOCK: Are there any other public defender's offices that you know of that are funded through traffic fines?
Ms. LEHMAN: No, I don't believe so.
BLOCK: Judge Hunter says that he's not going to let your office represent poor defendants in his court. He also said, though, that he has no money to pay for attorneys from the private bar. So who is going to be defending poor people in Judge Hunter's court?
Ms. LEHMAN: Well again, this is the problem. It all comes down to the money. And I think Judge Hunter was very clear in his ruling that this is really about the state legislature. The state legislature has to come to the table and grapple with its responsibility. It's a state responsibility to provide constitutionally effective counsel.
We're back in front of Judge Hunter on April 18th, and by that point, the bills will be pre-filed for the upcoming legislative session, which begins April 30. And Judge Hunter said you know, on April 18th, I will listen to any additional information that you have. I may change or modify my ruling, or I may not. And I expect that what he hopes is that there'll be some evidence the legislature's actually going to act on it and actually provide additional funding for indigent defense in New Orleans.
BLOCK: Well, one of those legislators, State Representative Danny Martini(ph), says actually the legislature has given more money for public defense over the past two years, but he also said something to USA Today that I thought was quite striking. He said: I don't think people look at the right to counsel as being a right. They look at it as a perk for the criminal.
Ms. LEHMAN: I don't disagree that it's a hard case. I think it's a case that we need to make. But I do get a sense that people are beginning to realize that more convictions alone is not the answer, that our system needs to be accurate, and it needs to be fair.
BLOCK: Christine Lehman, thanks very much.
Ms. LEHMAN: Thank you.
BLOCK: Christine Lehman is counsel for special litigation for the Orleans Parish Public Defender's Office in New Orleans.
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