Dear Board Members:
I write to urge you to do all within your power to safeguard the funding of the Fifteenth Judicial District Public Defender’s Office based in Lafayette Parish (“Lafayette Office.”). The Lafayette Office, under the leadership of Paul Marx, has become one of the leading offices in the entire state and to extinguish it now would irreparably damage the community within Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermilion Parishes and the national indigent defense reform movement.
For the sake of context, I will share a bit of my background. For twenty years I have represented indigent persons accused of criminal offenses. I have been a public defender in Atlanta and in Harlem; for the last ten years I have been in private practice in Manhattan. Besides my criminal defense practice, which includes participation in federal and state appointed-counsel panels, I teach at various trial advocacy programs around the country, including the National Criminal Defense College in Macon, Georgia.
Then there is Gideon’s Promise, a one-of-a-kind organization that I have been a faculty member of since its inception. I have been teaching with Jon Rapping since he first started the Georgia Honors Program for the newly created state-wide Georgia Indigent Defense Standards Council in 2005.
While writing only in my own personal capacity, I echo all of the points raised by Jon in his letter to you. Without repeating what Jon has written, I do want to share some of my personal thoughts of why I think the Lafayette Office is so special that it deserves to be preserved even in the face of a cataclysmic state-wide budget crisis.
Since 2013, I have personally trained every one of the eight lawyers that Gideon’s Promise has placed in the Lafayette Office. Adding the lawyers that graduated from our precursor organization, the Southern Public Defender Training Center, I believe that, as of last week, I have trained 14 of the 18 full-time lawyers in the Lafayette Office. Right now I am an official Gideon’s Promise Mentor for two of the attorneys in the Lafayette Office. I see most, if not all, of those 14 lawyers in person at least twice a year; a couple of months ago I travelled to Lafayette on my own dime to spend time with the Lafayette lawyers.
While you all are aware of the significant financial investment that Gideon’s Promise and other organizations have made with the lawyers in the Lafayette Office, one thing I think is difficult to appreciate is the amount of human capital that goes into each Gideon’s Promise lawyer and what it takes to create, sustain, and grow a model office like the Lafayette Office.
Every Gideon’s Promise lawyer in the Lafayette Office has a mentor with extensive public defender experience. These mentors, who are spread out across the country, receive phone calls, emails, and texts from mentees all the time on matters ranging from advice on how to handle evidentiary matters at trial to lending an ear and a heart when a young lawyer has become so frustrated that they want to quit. Gideon’s Promise attorneys also frequently contact and communicate with our faculty members and graduates who are not the individual attorney’s official mentor. If the mentoring support was billed out at market rates, it likely would run into tens of thousands of dollars per mentee.
Putting aside the tremendous amount of economic and human resources that have been invested in the full-time lawyers employed at the Lafayette Office, the promise that this specific office holds just can’t be quantified.
Without hesitation I can say that the Lafayette Office is special. Not just for Louisiana, but for the entire country. The espirit de corps and client-centered dedication of this tight-knit group of public defenders rivals and surpasses that of most, if not all, of the nationally-known public defender offices that have been around for decades. These young lawyers in Lafayette have thrown themselves into the breaches, from juvenile court to capital representation, without fear or hesitation. Instead of punching it in, these lawyers have created a justice team that has challenged and changed the status quo with a confident professionalism that has earned the respect of their adversaries and would make Charles Hamilton Houston proud.
Under Paul Marx’s leadership, the Lafayette Office has become a true model of how to begin a transition from a bare-bones contract system to a staffed office that truly provides worthy representation for those most-marginalized. The Lafayette Office has a blend of exceptional locally and nationally recruited staff – bright, dedicated, idealistic attorneys, some who were born and raised in or around Lafayette and others who have given up everything to move to and build a life in Lafayette. These lawyers not only have been lifting the standards for indigent defense in a community that so desperately needs it, but also they have been inspiring public defenders throughout Louisiana and the rest of the country to keep pushing as a team to make the world a better place through reforming our broken criminal justice system.
To be clear, this does not mean that the Layette Office was or is providing the highest standard of representation in the country. Even before the instant budget disaster, the Lafayette Office was underfunded in comparison to leading national offices. But the State of Louisiana has been getting quality indigent defense representation – something that did not exist in the 15th Judicial District – at a fraction of its true cost.
That will not happen again if the current budget crisis is used to bludgeon the Lafayette Office into oblivion. The lawyers will be snatched up by other offices around the state and country and will not come back. (I know one who already made the heart-breaking decision and was hired three days ago by a highly respected office.) Law schools likely will counsel their graduates to avoid the instability of the Louisiana public defender system and instead will prioritize other states that have tremendous needs as well.
From personal experience in Georgia and in New York, I know how fragile a visionary public defender office can be, how years of incremental gains and improvement that take so much collective sacrifice to achieve can be wiped out overnight by a politician’s pen. Just thinking of losing an office like Lafayette makes my stomach turn.
I beseech you to do what you can to prevent this from happening. I know that you have wrenching decisions to make and I commend you all for everything you have done to help improve indigent defense in Louisiana against Sisyphean obstacles.
Thank you so much for your work and your careful attention to this dire situation.
Sean M. Maher, Esq.