People have really given Mitt Romney hell for saying he’s “not concerned about the very poor.” But really, it’s not just wealthy Republican Mormons who lack compassion for the very poor in this country. Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacy to the Republican Party was that he made it okay for them to categorically disregard the plight of the structurally poor and blame them for their own suffering. And for the most part Democrats have decided that in order to win they must show a similar callousness towards the poor. The poor don’t vote, and so both parties conspire to ignore the impoverished — or worse, talk down to those who were stupid enough to be born to the wrong parents.
At an individual level, nearly all of us are complicit as well. Well, I’ll just speak for me: I do my part to not care about the permanent underclass that lives in the richest society on Earth. I won’t even give money to homeless people on the street unless they sing or dance or perform some sort of talent. One time I gave “James,” a blind man who panhandles on the 4/5/6, line at the same times I head into the office, $20 — not because I wanted to be kind but because I got so sick of his spiel (“I’m legally blind, I get a little bit of disability but that only leaves me $18 a month for food.”). I thought he might leave me alone for the rest of the month.
I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes wants poor people to just go away….
But there is a judge in New Orleans who isn’t like that. There is a judge in New Orleans who wants the larger community to not only see but also defend poor people who appear in his court. He hopes that if some prominent people have to get some skin in the game, maybe they won’t be so eager to cut essential legal services to indigent defendants.
You might be guaranteed the right to counsel, but the Constitution doesn’t specify how much the state has to pay for it. Effective Wednesday, the New Orleans public defender office let go 21 attorneys, even though the system is already bursting with people who need legal help.
Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter views the situation as a constitutional crisis. In response to the layoffs, Judge Hunter essentially drafted a bunch of lawyers to represent 32 criminal defendants. Who he picked is causing a stir. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports:
[T]he list obtained by The Times-Picayune makes clear he wants to spread the word over what he called a “constitutional emergency.”
The roster includes state Sens. Jean Paul Morrell, Karen Peterson and Edwin Murray; Times-Picayune publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. and Gambit co-owner Clancy DuBos; Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche; and frequent media legal commentators Robert Jenkins, Dane Ciolino and Joseph Raspanti, among others.
Hunter assigned each of them cases and ordered them to appear in court next week. Nearly all are lawyers, although Hunter appears to have mistakenly picked at least one who is not. Some on the list have little or no criminal court experience.
“They can always partner with someone who does,” Hunter said.
Boom goes the dynamite.
Around here, we spend a lot of time talking about law as a business. It seems like Judge Hunter remembered that law is also a profession, one that carries with it certain rights and responsibilities. Hunter is of course expecting that these people will perform their professional duty pro bono.
What’s going to be really fun is to see all of these prominent people and politicians try to wiggle out of their assignments:
[State Senator] Peterson said she received a letter from Hunter on Tuesday, assigning her to represent 22-year-old Kayla Brignac on charges of marijuana possession, possession of alprazolam and possession with intent to distribute hydrocodone.
Peterson immediately filed a motion to withdraw from the case because of work for the upcoming legislative session, she said.
“And secondly, I’ve never, ever appeared or represented anyone in criminal court,” she said. “I practice commercial transactions.”
Well, you go to law school for all of it, don’t you? I’m sure that if Senator Peterson really feels she’s unqualified to help those who need immediate legal counsel, she can vote to restore funding for the 21 PDs that the city just had to lay off.
Obviously, I expect that most if not all of Hunter’s hand-picked draftees will be able to avoid actual representation. Hunter’s actions are a stunt to draw attention to the issue.
But it’s a good stunt, and an important issue. Maybe if every lawyer could be drafted at any time to represent an indigent defendant, politicians would do a better job making sure that poor defendants had better access to competent attorneys.
Judge taps New Orleans noteworthies to handle criminal cases [New Orleans Times-Picayune]