The following article was written by G. Paul Marx, Chief Public Defender of the 15th Judicial District in Lafayette, Louisiana, when the Public Defender Act was passed in 2007. Looking back, we can see how much progress was made by the signing of this act, and how much public defense in Louisiana stands to lose with its current financial crisis. We cannot afford to go back.
The article, published July 6, 2007 read as follows…
Act takes La. Into 21st century
When people go to court without a lawyer, they are stepping into an arena without a clue about the rules of the game.
In “Red Corner,” Richard Gere plays an American who is trapped in China’s legal system, and literally can’t understand what’s happening. This is not justice, and I am proud that history will record the 2007 legislative session has taken steps to make sure we have something different from “Red Corner” in our state. The Public Defender Act of 2007 is the first major criminal justice law since 1974, and we all know how much things have changed in those 33 years!
People need lawyers in court, and when they are going into a case that might cost them everything, including literally their very breath of life, it is in keeping with our Christian principles and morality as a country that they have counsel. The Public Defender Act of 2007 takes Louisiana into the 21st century by establishing accountability and performance guidelines for the lawyers appointed to represent people who can’t hire their own, and by funding those lawyers professionally. The fact is, more than 90 percent of the people charged with a felony crime have to get an appointed lawyer, include middle-class folks like most of your readers. As one federal magistrate has noted, “this is a quality-of-life issue, not a poverty program.”
Passage of HB436 was nearly unanimous. It was authored by a Republican from Jefferson Parish (Danny Martiny) and passed the House 99-1 and the Senate 26-7. It was drafted by public defenders, private criminal defense lawyers, judges, district attorneys and legislators. It had the support of crime victims, families of victims and offenders, judges, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, national experts and citizens across the state. This law protects local funding and provides additional resources from the state, while mandating accountability and standard best practices.
The Public Defender Act of 2007 is a great gift to the citizens of our state for the Fourth of July. It brings Louisiana into a fond embrace of one of the basic differences created by the Founding Fathers of our country: “the right to counsel of your choice, and if you cannot afford it, one will be appointed for you,” which the Constitutional includes through the Bill of Rights.
G. Paul Marx, executive counsel
Louisiana Public Defenders Association
July 6, 2007