Class Action Lawsuit Seeking To Reform Louisiana’s Broken Public Defender System Advances

State Court Judge Denies State’s Request To Dismiss The Case

A class-action lawsuit alleging that Louisiana’s overburdened public defense system fails to protect the constitutional right to counsel for indigent individuals cleared an important hurdle when state court Judge Todd Hernandez denied the state’s motions to dismiss the suit.  The judge’s ruling recognizes the right of poor people to petition the courts for help in getting better lawyers while their cases are still pending, that failures of lawyers to properly communicate with clients or litigate their cases can be the basis of a lawsuit, and that allegations such as those laid out in this case warrant further review by the court.

This lawsuit, filed in February by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Southern Poverty Law Center, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Jones Walker LLP, seeks to reform Louisiana’s chronically failing indigent defense system.  The suit, which was filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish, seeks certification of a class of all indigent individuals charged as adults in the state facing non-capital criminal charges punishable by imprisonment.  It also seeks a declaration that the plaintiffs and class have been denied due process, equal protection of the law and the right to counsel under the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions.

The ruling on October 11th by Judge Hernandez ensures this crucial case may go forward, with a hearing date set for February 23, 2018, to address class certification.  The ruling is available online.

“The state of Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world, jailing more people per capita than any other state in the United States and more than most countries across the globe,” said Mateya Kelley, an attorney on the case with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “Overburdened public defenders do not have the time or resources to adequately represent their clients, creating a system where the courts have become a conveyor belt to conviction.  This only exacerbates the racial disparities that infect every stage of the criminal justice system. We are confident that our suit will ultimately bring relief to communities that have literally been left defenseless for far too long.”

“Louisiana’s broken public defender system has created a two-tiered justice system – one for those with the money for meaningful representation, and another for the poor that simply churns them through the system without the meaningful defense required by the Constitution,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Louisiana is the only state in the country that funds its indigent defense program through fines and fees largely taxed against the indigent themselves. The burden of this injustice falls disproportionately on African Americans, who are vastly over-represented in Louisiana’s criminal justice system. We are grateful for the judge’s ruling, which will allow us to continue working to ensure that all Louisianans, regardless of income, have adequate legal representation.”

Background On Louisiana’s Indigent Defense System:

Louisiana has the second highest poverty rate in the nation.  Eighty-five percent of people accused of a crime in Louisiana are indigent.  The state’s failure to treat them equally under the law has sweeping ramifications, as evidenced by Louisiana’s designation as the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate and second-highest wrongful conviction rate.  A disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color, particularly African-Americans, who comprise nearly 70 percent of the state prison population.

The U.S. and Louisiana constitutions guarantee the right to meaningful and effective assistance of counsel to anyone charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment.  The Louisiana Public Defender Act also requires the state public defender board to maintain a system for the cost-effective delivery of legal services at state expense to people entitled to appointed counsel.  Lawyers are required to communicate with their client about strategy, to conduct an investigation, pursue discovery, research legal issues, file appropriate pretrial motions and advocate for the client in court.  The attorney also must possess the skill, training and time to adequately complete these requirements.

In Louisiana, however, system-wide defects prevent public defenders from satisfying these basic obligations to their clients.  The number of public defenders and other professionals needed for a functioning public defense system falls far below national standards, and most criminal defendants in the state receive attorneys in name only.

Watch a video of plaintiffs in the lawsuit discussing the impact of not having adequate representation: “Injustice: The Failure of Louisiana’s Public Defense System.”

About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination.  Now in its 54th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is continuing its quest “Move America Toward Justice.”  The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.

The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see

Jones Walker LLP
Jones Walker LLP ( is a 400-attorney law firm which was founded and maintains deep roots in Louisiana.  With offices in Alabama, Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and Texas, the firm provides a comprehensive range of legal services to major multinational, public and private corporations, Fortune® 500 companies, money center banks, worldwide insurers, and emerging companies doing business in the United States and abroad.  We are committed through our pro bono program to helping the poor secure equal rights and access to justice particularly in the area of criminal justice reform.

Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP (including its associated entities) is a global law firm with offices strategically located in the world’s key financial centers. For more than 165 years, our lawyers have advised industry-leading companies and global financial institutions on their most challenging legal and business matters. Davis Polk ranks among the world’s preeminent law firms across the entire range of its practice. Davis Polk has more than 900 lawyers in offices located in New York, Northern California, Washington DC, São Paulo, London, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong. For more information, please visit