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Valpo law students help New Orleans defenders

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Each morning, students meet with public defenders in a rundown office building, just down the street from the New Orleans courthouse. These mostly second- and third-year law students have sacrificed their spring break in exchange for lessons they can’t learn in a classroom. As part of Valparaiso University School of Law’s annual trip to New Orleans, students handle – under the guidance of professor Derrick Carter – important tasks that enable these overworked attorneys to serve the public.

Carter’s group visited New Orleans between Feb. 28 and March 9 this year. The school’s early spring break coincided with a late Mardi Gras celebration.

Valpo Students from Valparaiso University School of Law work on research assignments for public defenders in New Orleans. The students traveled there during spring break. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“I figured there’d be a lot of drugs and pick-pocketing and other things,” Carter said. “But there were many domestic cases like murders and assaults. And one student was interviewing a kid who had just shot his brother, and he was constantly in tears.”

The Orleans Public Defenders office did not exist when Carter first visited New Orleans in 2006 to gut homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, the state and federal government allocated funds to hire and train people to handle the population’s legal troubles. Today, the defenders represent 90 percent of all people who have a legal case in the city.

“There’s a lot of political issues in New Orleans,” Carter said. “Almost daily, there are stories of prosecutorial misconduct.”

Carter said cases involving double jeopardy, search and seizure, and allegations of racism require the kind of knowledge that many students new to law may not have. While students from other universities may volunteer to help the public defenders, they’re often first-year students who don’t have the knowledge to handle such complex issues, Carter said.

“We take it to another level. I go with efficient criminal procedure students.”

Usually, the students’ primary responsibility is compiling briefs. The defenders’ office does not have a brief bank.

“They’re quite aware of a brief bank, but they have yet to find a person to do that,” Carter said.

No time to lose

Carter knows students may want to tour New Orleans and enjoy the Bourbon Street nightlife, but he demands accountability from students. “Rule number one: Be there in the morning for your assignment,” he said.

Students begin their day at 8 a.m. in the defenders’ office conference room. It’s not unusual to work until 6 p.m., preparing materials for lawyers. The students may also spend hours watching trials in the busy 12-room courthouse, where they see how stressful the work can be.

Carter said even as attorneys are “pacing back and forth, waiting for a verdict,” they still enjoy discussing cases with students.

Tom Little, a student who went on the trip this year, said he liked being able to put his education to work. “You’re shoved right into the mix,” he said. “At the end of the week, you have a great sense of accomplishment.”

Little said he was amazed by the caseload the attorneys juggled from day to day. “I could see how the course of work over the years could burn an attorney out,” he said. “The attorney that I was working for at the time, that was her last week. From what I’ve heard, they don’t stay there too long.”

In the office’s cluttered conference room, inspirational posters that once lined the walls are gone. The room now features a punching bag.

“It’s obvious why it’s there,” Little said. “With the kind of stress these guys go through, you would think it would be nice to have an outlet.”

Ryan Rowan, made his second consecutive trip to New Orleans this year with Carter’s group.

“This year, I wanted to see how the criminal justice system works during Mardi Gras,” he said. He was surprised to find that people were arrested for mostly the same offenses as last year.

“The biggest difference would be that they have a parade route statute,” Rowan said, explaining that carrying a firearm within proximity of a parade route is a chargeable offense in New Orleans.

Rowan intends to practice criminal law upon graduation and appreciated seeing how the courts handle cases elsewhere. “From a criminal perspective, it just gives you exposure to different jurisdictions.”

But Rowan also found a personal connection with New Orleans.

“One of the things that I think is very valuable about going to New Orleans …. I was actually able to tour the Louisiana Supreme Court and view the original documents in Plessy v. Ferguson,” Rowan said. “Especially as an African-American student, I reflected on the importance of this landmark case that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation that would not be overturned until the 1950s and realized that law is about serving my community in a positive way.”

Creating opportunities

Initially, students had to pay their own way for the New Orleans trip. But Carter said Valparaiso started helping students with expenses last year, and Little is thankful for that assistance.

Little said he’s also thankful that Carter accompanies the group on the trip, because many universities may not send a professor or adviser along to help.

“Having someone with his experience was instrumental in our success,” Little said. Carter, a former public defender, reviews the briefs students prepare, which Little appreciates, due to the fact that the cases they’re working on “have a huge impact on the future of these defendants.”

As for measuring the group’s overall success, Carter said, “If they’re exhausted, I know I’ve done my job.”•

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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