Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New Orleans Judge Tries to Equal Legal Playing Field

A story in the LA Times this morning reports of Judge Arthur Hunter, an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge, who has begun to suspend cases and free suspects who aren't able to afford fair legal representation. Hunter says that the system was in dire need of reform even prior to Katrina, but that racially biased post-Katrina attitudes toward "crime" and "justice" have unfairly targeted those who aren't able to pay for adequate representation. He calls the situation ""unbelievable, unconstitutional, totally lacking in basic professional standards of legal representation and a mockery of what a criminal justice system should be in a Western, civilized nation."

The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge has held high-profile hearings into post-Katrina legal snafus and delays involving indigent defendants. In the last two months, he has suspended the prosecution of cases against 142 defendants and ordered the release of 20 who were still jailed.

In doing so, he propelled the city's cash-strapped and overburdened public defender program into the national spotlight. Its performance has become a controversial topic in a city battling record levels of violent crime.

Supporters view Hunter as a near-fanatic for fairness. Critics call his actions outrageous, and charge that he is a publicity-seeker more interested in protecting the rights of criminals than those of victims and their families.

The judge's recent ruling that suspended about 100 prosecutions and freed 20 was halted by an order from the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, after an appeal by Orleans Parish Dist. Atty. Eddie Jordan. The appeal is awaiting a ruling by the 4th Circuit.

Hunter is determined to press ahead. In recent weeks, he has notified more than 300 private lawyers of potential appointment to represent indigent defendants. And he has continued to call for increased state funding to reform the indigent-defense system.

On Sunday, the state Senate passed a bill that would create a statewide public defenders' board and increase funding for the state's indigent-defense program from $17 million to $27 million. The state House is expected to approve the bill before the legislative session ends Thursday. The bill then would be sent to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, for signing.

Someone give this man an award. Amid what is sure to be a firestorm of controversey, he's taking a stand and using his power in the legal system to change it. I recently met an inspiring man who lives in New Orleans and was wrongfully imprisoned for close to six months due to the chaos of Katrina. Since then, he's teamed up with community and government organizations to garner support to combat the criminal injustice system. But it's certainly refreshing to see similar calls and acts waged by those who yield the power.

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