[JURIST] New Orleans Parish Criminal District Court [official website] Judge Arthur Hunter on Friday released four inmates from jail who he claims were being held in violation of their constitutional right to adequate legal representation after the Hurricane Katrina disaster [JURIST news archive]. Hunter postponed the trials until effective counsel can be provided to the inmates, charged with three misdemeanor drug charges and one minor felony. Hunter first threatened in July to start releasing inmates [JURIST report], but later postponed [JURIST report] his review of their cases.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina [JURIST news archive], which hit the city in late August last year, the New Orleans public defenders office has become backlogged with thousands of cases which it is unable to process quickly due to budget and employee shortfalls. Before the hurricane, the office had 70 lawyers and an annual budget of $2.2 million, with 75% of its funding coming from traffic fines. More than a year after the hurricane, much of the staff has yet to return and a sharp drop in traffic in the city has caused a severe lack of funding. In an attempt to account for the shortfalls, Hunter subpoenaed state legislators and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco [official website], but all alleged that the subpoena violated constitutional separation of power doctrine and refused to appear [NACDL report]. AP has more.