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Clinic Battles for Rights of Indigent Prisoners

May 01, 2006

Pamela Metzger believes that constitutional rights exist even for impoverished people in jail during natural disasters, and she is determined to protect those rights. Recently, Metzger, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at Tulane Law School, led a team of third-year law students in filing a lawsuit that alleges the Louisiana system of funding its public-defender system is unconstitutional.

Louisiana is the only state that pays public defenders primarily with money collected from traffic and court fines, a system that Metzger believes creates a conflict of interest.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with no fines collected in Orleans Parish and other parishes in the hurricane zone, the public defense system ground to a halt due to lack of money. Metzger estimates that 4,000 indigent Orleanians sat in jails throughout Louisiana, waiting for legal representation and news of their homes and families. The ratio of those in need of a lawyer to existing lawyers prompted Orleans Parish Chief Judge Calvin Johnson to ask the criminal law clinics at Tulane and Loyola to provide representation.

"We are unique among law clinics nationally because we are one of the very few clinics that handles felony matters with law students. We are one of the very few law clinics that has a very strong and successful state supreme court practice where our students go in and argue," says Metzger, who sees these days not only as a chance to transform the legal system in Louisiana but as prime training ground for future lawyers.

She points out that most of those waiting on a lawyer have not committed violent crimes but were arrested for a variety of offenses from unpaid court fines to prostitution.

"The Orleans Parish public defense system was tremendously disadvantaged before the storm," says Metzger, who is an associate professor at the law school. "I don't think it's too strong to say that the storm destroyed it. The real problem existed before Katrina. Katrina just held a magnifying glass up so we could really see the flaws. People used to wait four weeks to see a lawyer and now it's more like four months."

Metzger's clinic produces prosecuting attorneys as well as criminal defense lawyers. In many ways, she says, the alumni who became prosecutors are the most appalled by the current situation.

"I get more students every year who want to be good prosecutors, and in many ways they are the people who are most outraged," Metzger says. "They want to know how any prosecutor with any sense of ethics can tolerate being part of this. And we are not arguing that any charges must be dropped but that where it's clear that there is no lawyer and no lawyer coming, you can't hold people in jail. We're not saying you can't continue to prosecute."

Even those who get legal representation and an order for release from prison find themselves behind bars, "forgotten," says Metzger, because the Orleans Parish Prison often fails to send the release orders to the jails that house them. Metzger and the clinic filed an order to hold the Warden of Orleans Parish Prison in contempt of court for failing to release prisoners when ordered to do so.

Metzger believes it will take years to untangle the mess exacerbated by Katrina. "It's going to be transformative," Metzger says of the possibilities that lie ahead. "It's all part of this ongoing social experiment we have, to have a working adversarial system of justice."


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