Slate has this powerful piece today about the state of the criminal justice system in New Orleans and the role of big law in assisting its resurrection.
Law firms are the cavalry of the legal world. Disaster strikes, and the firms, with their thousands of lawyers and millions of dollars, ride into town to clean up the mess. But what happens when the cavalry doesn’t show?
That’s the situation in New Orleans, where almost two years after Katrina, the criminal-defense system is still in a state of emergency. Public defense was never the city’s strength: When the levees broke, there were about 7,000 criminal defendants waiting to see a state-appointed lawyer. Immediately after the storm, the city jailed roughly 5,000 of them, many on shaky legal grounds. Most remained locked up for over a year before speaking with a lawyer. The public defender’s office is slowly working through the backlog, but is still overwhelmed. It’s a situation public defenders bitterly call “Gitmo on the Bayou.”
The initial help did arrive: law students taking trips down to NOLA; public defenders from other states spending months helping out. However, as the article points out, that is a piecemeal and slow process. So whither the money and clout of Big Law?
To be fair, big law has done a lot for the region. Firms donated thousands of hours to the legal rebuilding effort, sending lawyers down to help with FEMA appeals, small-business recovery, and Road Home grants. The Mississippi Center for Justice, a Jackson-based nonprofit founded in 2003, convinced 19 law firms to donate 8,100 hours last year, adding up to a value of $3 million. Most of this work, however, has been on civil matters.
So as the criminal justice system goes to waste; defendants sit in jail for over a year without once talking to a lawyer; judges find the funding system unconstitutional, can Big Law do anything to help? The article suggests that Big Law can file a lawsuit.
Firms are great at impact litigation. Be it a suit against a city, state, or large public institution, firms have pushed the law forward in amazing ways through large-scale litigation. They can do the same in New Orleans. The current system raises some serious constitutional questions.
Hence the question: they can, but should they? I think yes. They have the resources – financial and personnel – and there is no greater service than assisting the community. The criminal justice system in NOLA is a travesty and someone – anyone – should do all they can to help. Gideon’s promise needs to be fulfilled.