Last Modified: Thursday, August 09, 2012 10:01 PM
Members of the Southwest Louisiana Bar Association expressed concerns Wednesday over whether criminal defendants will receive adequate representation from civil attorneys.
The group met to discuss the recent revelation that some cases previously being handled by the Calcasieu Parish Public Defenders Office are being reassigned to the private bar because of budget cuts.
The Public Defenders Office announced last week that because of a $240,000 deficit, it was being forced to terminate the contracts of five attorneys and withdraw from an estimated 400 cases.
Members of the area bar also asked Jay Dixon, head of the Public Defenders Office, how the cases would be distributed, how the addition of criminal cases would affect the rates of their malpractice insurance, how they are to pay for expert witnesses and how long this situation will last.
Betty Raglin, president of the local bar association, questioned whether she, a civil lawyer, could give an adequate defense to a criminal defendant.
She likened it to the difference between a proctologist and a neurosurgeon — they’re both qualified physicians, she said, but you wouldn’t want one doing the other’s job.
Dixon said he rejected the notion that civil lawyers aren’t qualified to handle the cases, saying “all of us started up somewhere, all of us had our first case … . Under that theory, none of us could practice law, if that’s the case.”
Raglin dispelled rumors that the bar association had input on the decision. She said it is working to “figure out how to help our members move forward and deal with what is currently going on.”
Dixon said his office has been tasked with distributing the cases, although the judges will have to approve the assignments.
He said he received a roster of Calcasieu lawyers from the state Supreme Court and whittled that list down to 388 attorneys. The list excludes judges and prosecutors.
He has already assigned cases, randomly starting with attorneys whose last names start with the letter J.
Attorneys won’t be assigned more than three cases, Dixon said.
He also reiterated that the toughest cases remain within the Public Defenders Office.
He said the cases would be assigned to the “next man up,” but also said he would “cherry pick” if a certain lawyer was more qualified to handle certain cases.
Four of the five attorneys let go by the Public Defenders Office were conflict attorneys — Dixon said that decision was made because they handled the less serious of the felonies. The cases “with as few moving parts as possible,” such as those involving burglary, theft or forgery, will be distributed among private practice attorneys.
When pressed if there was a standard set, Dixon said his office is trying to distribute cases that are “generally probation eligible.” He said no sex-related cases would handed out to the private bar.
Dixon, Judge Kent Savoy, District Attorney John DeRosier and various private practice criminal defense lawyers said guidance would be provided to help civil lawyers maneuver through the cases.
As to how long the situation will last, Dixon didn’t give a definitive answer, but said, “if this goes on longer than a year, I’ve got bigger problems.”