Orrick Pro Bono Effort Helps Secure Ruling Finding Louisiana’s Debtors’ Prison Unconstitutional

August.27.2019

With an Orrick pro bono team playing an instrumental role, a federal appeals court has declared Louisiana's debtors' prison scheme unconstitutional in a case challenging a system that resulted in indigent people being jailed for being unable to pay court debts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Aug. 23 upheld a judge's 2017 decision, which found the debt-collection practices of the judges of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (OPCDC) violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

Rejecting an appeal from the OPCDC judges, the appeals court agreed with our arguments that New Orleans' predatory funding scheme makes it impossible for the OPCDC to function as the neutral tribunal the Constitution demands. The Fifth Circuit held that when the OPCDC judges make judicial decisions that generate money they rely on and control, the "temptation" to make those decisions with an eye toward their court's finances "is too great."

Orrick has partnered with the Civil Rights Corps and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law to challenge the New Orleans criminal court's debtor-prison practices, which are common across Louisiana and other states. Associate Rachel Shalev, a member of Orrick's Supreme Court and Appellate Practice, successfully argued the case in the Fifth Circuit. Senior Counsel Jonathan Guy led the team that won in the trial court.

"This ruling will help bring basic fairness to New Orleans' criminal court and send a message to states, cities, and counties across the country that seek to fund their criminal legal systems on the backs of their poorest citizens," said Marco Lopez, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps.

Partner Kelsi Brown Corkran led the appellate team in the Fifth Circuit, in addition to Rachel. The appellate and trial effort also has included Kathryn Mantoan, Ethan Fallon, David Fuad, Christine Hanley and Alexandra Heifetz.

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