Decision Paves Way for Statewide Reforms that Could Impact 50,000 Louisianans
BATON ROUGE, La. – A Louisiana trial court yesterday granted class-action status to a lawsuit that challenges the state’s broken public defense system, creating a path for system-wide reforms for people in need of appointed counsel. The case, Allen et. al. v. Bel Edwards et. al, is set to go to trial in January.
The trial court’s decision certifies a class of all individuals in Louisiana who are charged with non-capital criminal offenses and are represented by a public defender. The class consists of approximately 50,000 individuals, likely the largest indigent defense case ever. Now that the case is certified as a statewide class action, the trial court is empowered to issue a ruling that would require improvements to the entire public defense system.
For far too long, indigent defendants in Louisiana have been at the mercy of Louisiana’s broken public defender system, which has failed time and time again to guarantee the right to meaningful and effective counsel,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This ruling is a major step forward in our collective fight to provide constitutional protections to those who have been left defenseless across the State. We are proud to represent all those accused of noncapital crimes—who, in Louisiana as elsewhere, are disproportionately African American— and look forward to proving our case at trial in January. We will continue fighting to address the ways in which race infects our criminal justice system in Louisiana and deem this case a critical part of that ongoing work.”
“The trial court’s decision acknowledges the undeniable: Louisiana’s public defender system is broken across the entire state and endangers every individual charged with a crime who cannot afford his or her own attorney,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “For decades, the State has allowed the public defense system to be underfunded, unmonitored, and shamefully inadequate. This statewide problem demands a statewide solution.”
In ruling for the Plaintiffs, Judge Todd Hernandez rejected Defendants’ argument that Governor John Bel Edwards, the State Public Defender, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board have no obligation to establish a public defense system that satisfies minimum constitutional requirements. The ruling further acknowledges that Defendants’ alleged failure to maintain an adequate system commonly impacts all indigent defendants in the state.