A third of the contracted attorneys retained to defend the indigent in Ouachita and Morehouse parishes were recently laid off by the Fourth Judicial District’s Public Defender Office because of economic hardships arising out of the COVID-19 crisis.
In response to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ social distancing measures, courts across Louisiana have closed their courtrooms to the public. Courts in Ouachita and Morehouse parishes continue to operate remotely, without any face-to-face exchanges, by accepting motions filed by attorneys or conducting hearings through videoconferencing.
Without people appearing in traffic court or paying court costs and fees in domestic violence cases, there’s no income for the Public Defender Office, according to Michael Courteau, District Defender for the Fourth Judicial District. The Public Defender Office collects $45 in courts costs for each traffic ticket paid at district court or city courts in the Fourth Judicial District.
“There’s very little to no revenue coming in, and that’s about 60 percent of our revenue,” Courteau said. “Without that, we can’t operate.”
Courteau supervises the district’s 27 contract attorneys and Public Defender Office employees. Courteau said the Public Defender Office laid off nine of the 27 attorneys as well as some office staff.
Courteau noted the Public Defender Office’s contract attorneys represent the indigent, or those who cannot afford an attorney, who face felony and misdemeanor charges in district court, city courts, juvenile court, drug court and more.
“We’ve had to take some drastic steps,” Courteau said. “We terminated one-third. We’re stretching the band, but at some point, it snaps. It hasn’t happened yet. We’ve just increased the case load of those who are still here. As time goes on, the band gets stretched more and more.”
In light of the lost attorneys, the Public Defender Office’s other attorneys have taken on a higher case load, according to Courteau.
Monroe attorney Bob Noel, one of the contract attorneys remaining at the Public Defender Office, pointed out that many indigent defender attorneys are still working in spite of the court’s partial closure.
“We’re not going out of business, I can tell you that,” Noel said. “The one thing I want to emphasize is that we’re still having court. We’re handling jail cases, juvenile cases. We have arraignments going on right now. We’re still preparing for trials that will take place when this is all over with. In addition, we’re still talking to clients on the phone, filing motions, getting our discovery. A lot of the work that attorneys do is not in the courtroom, and our lawyers are doing just that.”
Noel said he hoped the Public Defender Office could hire some of the attorneys that were laid off, if the Public Defender Office’s financial health improved.
“We hope we can bring some people back,” Noel said.
Courteau warned that the economic fallout resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak could be detrimental to the Public Defender Office, even if the courts reopened after April 30. That would be the case because the Public Defender Office depends on the state for a third of its annual funding. In light of the plummeting price of oil as well as projections of poor state sales tax collections, the state may not be in a position to fund the Indigent Defender Board at its current level of funding.
“Our fiscal year starts in July, so we have to make it in July, Courteau said. “Even in July, if the state can’t fund at its current level, that would be a concern. Even when things get back to normal, it will take a while for things to get going and the court costs to come back to us. It takes a few months for those systems to kick in. There’s no indication it will start anytime soon.”
According to Courteau, public defense was critical to the efficiency of the judicial system as much as the due process of the indigent facing criminal charges.
“We represent 90 percent of the felony cases that come through the court,” Courteau said. “Without a public defender, the DA can’t move forward, the court can’t move forward. The whole system stops. We’re the tire that keeps the vehicle moving.