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Louisina Public Defender Proposal Raises Criticism

A proposal to move Louisiana’s public defender system under the governor’s direct control has alarmed attorneys, local defense attorneys and retired judges.  Critics describe the proposition as a power grab by the sitting state public defender, Rémy Starns, who has clashed with the Louisiana state public defender board that oversees his office. “It certainly has his fingerprints all over it,” said Frank Neuner, a Lafayette attorney and a former chairman of the public defender board from 2008 to 2012, the Lousiana Illuminator reports. Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Mike Reese, R-Leesville, would transfer authority over the state public defender system’s $52 million budget and its personnel from the 11-member board solely to the position Starns currently holds. The bill takes away the board’s power to hire the state public defender and gives it to the governor, contingent on Louisiana Senate confirmation. Once selected, the state public defender would serve a six-year term.  Critics worry the proposed structure doesn’t create enough distance between the state, which technically brings all charges against people accused of crimes, and the criminal defense system.

The governor’s direct role in executions could also create a conflict of interest for the state public defender, who pays for attorneys representing clients facing the death penalty. “From a pure separation of powers perspective, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the executive branch to choose the district defenders in each district,” said Ross Foote, a former state public defender board member and retired state judge from Alexandria whose wife, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote, serves on the federal bench in Shreveport. “If this bill passes, politics is front and center,” Foote said. “There’s essentially no checks and balances.” Starns said he isn’t behind the legislation, but he supports the proposal and hopes Gov. Jeff Landry would consider keeping him on as state public defender if it passes. “The governor is responsible for this bill,” Starns said. “It’s going to save the public defender system.” 


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