It is the duty of a public defender to defend people in court, but it’s becoming increasingly common for these defenders to have to defend themselves, reports the Christian Science Monitor. With public defense offices overworked and underpaid to the point of a “national crisis,” says former Attorney General Eric Holder, they are finding an unlikely ally in their efforts to gain the budgets and staffing necessary: the people who are suing them. This may be why Derwyn Bunton, chief defender at Orleans Public Defenders in New Orleans, has a peculiar optimism about the fact his office was named in a class action lawsuit last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The discussion he wants to have centers around the need for more money and more attorneys, a chronic issue for public defenders offices nationwide. This month, due to staffing shortages, the New Orleans defender started placing certain felony cases on waiting lists. The ACLU responded swiftly with a lawsuit, claiming that the move is unconstitutional because it denies those charged with felonies their Sixth Amendment right to an attorney. New Orleans is just the latest jurisdiction to see its public defender office sued. Cases have ranged from Florida to Washington, and, with many cities facing tough financial times, legal experts only expect the trend to continue. “There’s going to be more of these types of lawsuits filed because we're seeing crushing, crushing caseloads” in public defender offices, says Colette Tvedt of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.