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The Louisiana Supreme Court once again refused to provide a systemic remedy for Louisiana’s decades’ long failure to provide reasonably effective and competent legal representation for its most impoverished citizens.

Instead, in State v. Covington, the court reversed a courageous decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeal that had provided significant relief from excessive caseloads to Louisiana public defenders.

So now Louisiana is stuck with a system that has failed to deliver effective representation or justice for the past 27 years. Under this system, Louisiana public defenders are required to conduct individualized hearings for every affected client.

In an amicus brief filed in this case, 43 distinguished members of the Louisiana bar had urged the court not to do that.

As one of the justices accurately observed, that approach to the problem is “a waste of judicial resources that could potentially bring Louisiana’s criminal justice system to a standstill.”

In her magnificent dissent, Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson correctly observed that there “is no equal justice under law” in Louisiana’s criminal justice system and that Louisiana is proceeding “in flagrant disregard of the United States Constitution.”

The chief justice is retiring at the end of this year, and her powerful dissent is a fitting capstone to a distinguished legal career.

Louisiana’s criminal processing system has a deservedly notorious reputation in our nation’s legal community. Louisiana public defenders have almost five times the amount of work they can handle competently.

This unmanageable burden has consequences for the rest of justice system. As the chief justice correctly noted, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of proven wrongful convictions in the nation and has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation.

This myopic ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court will only make it more difficult to reverse these shameful trends. For at least the past quarter-century, the Supreme Court has failed in its obligation under the Louisiana Constitution to uphold, protect and defend the United States and Louisiana constitutions and the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct. The court’s attempt to blame this problem on the Legislature is an abdication of its fundamental constitutional responsibility to Louisiana’s bench, bar and citizenry.

This decision is unworthy of a noble profession.

—Stephen F. Hanlon

This article originally was published in The Advocate