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Blanco beats prosecutors in power struggle

Panel backs change to indigent-defender board

Advocate staff photo by Arthur D. Lauck
Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport, left, and Terry Ryder, Gov. Kathleen Blanco's executive counsel, talk while prosecutors pursue amendments that would gut Jackson's legislation. Senate Bill 323 reorganized a board's committee membership so an agency could handle the system of providing lawyers to poor people.
The Blanco administration squared off against prosecutors and legislators Tuesday to grab the lion's share of power on a board that would provide lawyers to criminal defendants who cannot afford counsel.

After a series of close votes, the House Committee on Criminal Justice put aside an effort by prosecutors to gut the proposal to revamp the state's indigent defense system.

Instead, the panel narrowly approved amendments to give the governor more appointments on the board that would run a system that eventually could cost taxpayers $55 million a year.

The legislation, already approved by the Senate, now must be considered by the full House.

Senate Bill 323 is the product of a legislative task force and represents what its sponsor, Sen. Lydia Jackson, calls a "small first step" in a sweeping reform of how Louisiana provides and pays lawyers for eight out of 10 people charged with crimes in Louisiana.

The legislation would change the mission of the Louisiana Indigent Defense Assistance Board from providing money for 41 local public defenders' offices to hiring, firing and regulating public defenders from a single office.

Rep. Warren Triche, D-Thibodaux, called the amendments a power grab by the governor. Triche reminded lawmakers that governors in Louisiana traditionally pick the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.

"This is just one more instance of a governor taking even more power," said Triche before voting against the amendments.

Currently, the board running LIDAB has nine members -- three appointed by the governor, three by the speaker of the House and three by the president of the Senate.

Senate Bill 323 would increase the membership to 15. The governor would get two direct appointments, while the House speaker and Senate president would get one each. The Louisiana Supreme Court would get two appointments and the rest would go to bar associations and community groups.

Initially, SB323 allowed the four law school chancellors to choose a member each. Under the amendments, the governor would get to choose a member from each of the law schools, increasing her appointments from two to six.

Throughout the bill's progress through the Legislature, Gov. Kathleen Blanco has returned phone calls on the issue and not allowed her aides to comment on Jackson's legislation.

But her counsel, Terry Ryder, appeared Monday to tell committee members that the governor approves SB323.

"The governor is comfortable with the balance of the board as configured with the amendments," Ryder said.

Jackson said the governor wanted assurances that LIDAB, which operates out of her office, would be held accountable. She said the deal was the result of weeklong negotiations.

Task force member Walt Sanchez, the Lake Charles lawyer who is widely recognized as the author of the plan to recompose the LIDAB board, said "I believe the structure we had before was better. But it's a legislative process and I recognize that compromises have to be made."

Prosecutors, however, had trouble with the composition of the board along with several other features of the bill, such as the definition of what constitutes a case.

Pete Adams said the DA's are still concerned that the board would be controlled by anti-death penalty people. But the governor-dominated board alleviates "at least some of our concern." The DA's will discuss how that will work.

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