Dean Emeritus Testifies in Important New Orleans Public Defender System Case
Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law, Norman Lefstein, recently testified at a trial in New Orleans that resulted in a Louisiana Judge calling the public defender system in his state a “legal hell” and refusing to allow the Orleans Public Defender (OPD) to represent indigent defendants in his court.
On March 30, 2007, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur L. Hunter, Jr. threatened to release 42 defendants awaiting trial rather than let them be inadequately represented by overworked public defenders.
Dean Emeritus Lefstein testified for several hours as a pro bono expert witness evaluating the fact that the OPD’s lack of personnel resulted in their failure to take the most basic steps, such as determining which motions to file, conducting discovery and investigating the facts of the case. The judge, citing both opinions of the Louisiana Supreme Court and the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, concluded, “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.”
Judge Hunter blames the Louisiana legislature for not appropriating sufficient funding for the system. He ordered the president of the Louisiana State Bar Association to provide a list of practicing attorneys and then ordered the OPD to determine whether it can pay the legal fees if the court appoints attorneys to ease their case load. According to his opinion, “the court must take certain measures to protect the statutory and constitutional rights of indigent defendants.” An appeal in the case is likely.
Lefstein is a nationally recognized expert on indigent defense issues. After overseeing the research and writing of a comprehensive ABA report on the nationwide crisis in indigent defense, Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice (February 2005), he was named 2005 “Champion of Indigent Defense” by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He is also a four-term Chair of the Indiana Public Defender Commission, a position to which two Indiana governors have appointed him.