Paul Marx, 15th Judicial District defender, spoke to the club about what public defenders do and what they are facing today.
The Indigent Defender’s Office for the 15th Judicial District has three parishes within its district–Acadia, Vermilion and Lafayette–and features a population of 341,350 according to the 2010 Census.
“You have some very talented people on the bench here,” said Marx.
Marx pointed out that about 10 people work in the office, including some Rotarians.
The office features the typical perception of public offenders, attorneys appointed by the court to represent someone charged in a criminal case, as well as a juvenile division. However, other jobs of a public defender are not as well known. For example, if a child is taken from his or her home by the Department of Child Services, a public defender can be appointed to represent the family.
Defense lawyers are also charged with the task to get defendants to understand the evidence before them and the consequences of their actions and so on.
“Basically, defenders must make the system make sense,” said Marx.
The public defender system is currently in the midst of its greatest reform since 1974. In 1974, the Supreme Court decided that the right to an attorney also meant that a defendant must be appointed an attorney by the state if necessary.
But in 2007, the state centralized its focus on public defenders, according to Marx, making the system work better and making sure the public defender was given the adequate funds and attention to work properly, because the cost to defend in a criminal case has become very high.
“At one point, the Louisiana Supreme Court said that if the state didn’t start funding this side of the bar (the public defender side), they were going to stop allowing district attorneys to hold trials,” said Marx.
Marx also explained some of the complicated nature of criminal law by using hypothetical situations. Among the things covered was how the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that polygraph tests are too unreliable and thus cannot be admitted into evidence. However, they do still serve a purpose as they may be used in a plea bargaining session.
Marx concluded by stating that courthouse security measures, which Acadia Parish upgraded recently, are a sign of the times and a good thing for all those involved.