Louisiana’s public defender system will stay in place

Senate committee votes down legislation to eliminate public defender board

Courtroom Gavel
(Getty Images)

The Louisiana Senate Judiciary B Committee voted 5-1 Tuesday to scuttle legislation that would have overhauled the management of public criminal defense in Louisiana.

Several people with political connections put pressure on the committee members to support and oppose the controversial legislation.

The bill’s sponsor, Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, is one of the most powerful members of the Louisiana Legislature. He was in conflict with attorney Frank Neuner, a Republican Party donor from Lafayette, over the bill. Neuner showed up to Tuesday’s Senate committee meeting to oppose Magee’s legislation in person.

While discussion of the bill was taking place, Magee stepped out of the committee room and started screaming at Neuner in front of lobbyists and fellow lawmakers in the hallway. Magee said Neuner lied to the Senate committee about Magee’s efforts to work with Neuner on the legislation. Neuner was upset he had not seen the recent amendments Magee had added to the bill, Neuner said.

Neuner then made arrangements in front of a reporter to meet up with Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, later for a talk, though it’s not clear if that meeting was related to Magee’s legislation. Moments later, the Senate committee voted down Magee’s bill. 

House Bill 586 would have eliminated the Louisiana State Public Defender Board and replaced it with an advisory committee. The public defender board oversees the financing and policies of public defenders across the state.

If Magee’s bill had passed, much of the board’s power would have been transferred to the state public defender, the person who currently oversees the day-to-day operations of public defense. Critics said the legislation would have created a public defense “czar” — a person who has almost total control over public defense without much outside oversight.

“We call him a czar. You can call him a dictator. It doesn’t really matter. There will only be one person in charge of public defense,” Neuner said, telling senators to oppose the bill.

The legislation split the state’s district defenders, those who run local public defender offices. District defenders in urban and suburban areas generally opposed the legislation, while district defenders from rural areas were generally in support of it.

State Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, said the Judiciary B Committee received hundreds of comments about the legislation in the run up to Tuesday’s vote.

The bill was as much about money as it was about management structures. Rural district defenders are frustrated that the state public defender board allocates millions of dollars to nonprofit legal organizations to handle more complicated public defense cases.  These nonprofit organizations get paid to defend people facing the death penalty and people convicted of violent crimes as juveniles and they get paid to take up cases they believe ended in wrongful convictions.

District defenders in urban and suburban areas support sending funds to the nonprofit legal organizations to provide this legal representation. They generally believe their staff attorneys don’t have time to handle these  cases on top of their normal workload.

Meanwhile, in rural areas, district defenders contract out much of their public defender work to attorneys in their area in private practice. They would prefer the money the public defender board sends to nonprofit legal organizations be sent to their offices instead. If that were the case, rural district defenders could pick a local attorney in private practice to handle their more complicated cases if they wanted. The public defender board currently delegates those cases to the nonprofit organizations.

Magee has spent time working as a private attorney on public defender cases in Houma and also believes that too much funding for public defense goes to the nonprofit organizations. He holds the board responsible for that problem.

Neuner is the board chairman for Innocence Project New Orleans, one of the nonprofit organizations that receives funding from the state public defender board. The Innocence Project helps free from prison people wrongfully convicted of crimes.

“He chairs a board that benefits from the current system,” Magee said in an interview.

Neuner also served as chairman of the state public defender board from 2008 to 2013. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed Neuner, a campaign contributor, to that position.  

Neuner has made donations to several Acadiana-area Republicans, including Cortez, Attorney General Jeff Landry and District Attorney Bo Duhe, the prosecutor for Lafayette Parish. Neuner also supports the business community’s various political action committees (PACs) as well as the state Republican Party of Louisiana, according to campaign finance reports. He sits on the board of directors for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Louisiana state politics. 

Occasionally, Neuner gives to Democrats, such as state Sen. Gerald Boudreaux and the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco — both from Lafayette.

Neuner also said his law firm handles contracts from the Office of the Attorney General and represents the local sheriffs from Iberia, Lafayette and St. Landry parishes.

Magee had attempted to sweeten the deal to eliminate the public defender board by tying it to a proposed tax on smokable medical marijuana. State public defender Remy Starns pushed for the bill publicly because of its tie to that funding. In Louisiana, public defense is desperately in need of more money.

“The funding mechanism that Rep. Magee has come up with, I think it is the most significant concept in funding that I’ve ever seen,” Starns told the Senate committee. “I do think funding is important for public defense.”

Starns, as the state public defender, has also been at odds with the state public defender board over budget issues. Last month, he proposed that his office withhold more funding from the local public defenders than they had expected to be withheld, but the public defender board overruled him. 

Starns also wanted to shift money from the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights — one of the nonprofit organizations that receives public defender funding — to the Orleans Public Defenders Office. The board also overruled him on that decision, sending the money directly to the nonprofit organization instead. 

If the public defender board had been eliminated, it’s likely that Starns would have become the new public defender “czar.” He would control the budget over which he and the public defender board are at odds.

Starns is already a powerful person in state government. On top of being the state public defender, he serves on the LSU Board of Supervisors and is set to become chairman of that board — one of the most coveted positions in the state — this year.

Earlier versions of the legislation would have actually prevented Starns from becoming the public defender “czar” because he never worked as a public defender. The bill required that the state public defender — after the elimination of the board — had to work as a public defender for five years in order to get the job.

But Magee said the bill had been amended to allow Starns to stay on as the state public defender if the legislation passed. The requirement for experience working as a local public defender would kick in once Starns left the office, Magee said.

When Starns was asked by a reporter if he had a shot at becoming the public defender “czar” under Magee’s bill, he shrugged.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said.