Broussard For the Defenders

How Maggie Broussard found her calling working for public defenders—and foster children

Published in 2019 Louisiana Super Lawyers Magazine

During Maggie Broussard’s time at Tulane University Law School, she envisioned herself representing corporate clients in the courtroom, and arguing the details of complex cases before juries. She gave little thought to what life is like for lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants. “Working with public defenders was not on my radar,” she says.

But during her eight years of practice in the business litigation section of Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann in New Orleans, Broussard has immersed herself in issues surrounding the funding of state and local public defender programs.

It began in 2012, when the Louisiana Public Defender Board asked one of her firm’s senior members, Phillip Wittmann, to defend the constitutionality of a $35 fee the state charges to defendants who plead guilty to or are convicted of a crime. 

The issue arose after a public defender represented a New Orleans man, Steven Bice, on a municipal charge of public intoxication. Bice later filed a civil rights action in federal court, challenging how Louisiana funds its public defender program. Because defendants who are found not guilty are not charged the $35 fee, Bice’s lawyer alleged that the fee arrangement discouraged public defenders from seeking exoneration for their clients. 

The district court dismissed the case, citing the Younger doctrine, which the court said required its abstention. When the matter was appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Wittmann turned to Broussard, then a second-year associate, and another of the firm’s attorneys to research a potential defense of the Public Defender Board. Among other steps, the attorneys compiled a 50-state survey to understand how each state funds its public defenders. 

As Broussard worked on the Bice case, she found herself becoming an advocate for the importance of public defender programs. “Everyone deserves to be defended and have an attorney who is not so overburdened that they cannot dedicate the time needed to adequately defend their client,” she says. “It’s not just in capital cases, but everything from misdemeanors all the way to parental rights.”

The representation of children is a particular passion of Broussard’s. “I became interested in the foster care system when I was in undergraduate school, and while I was at Tulane, I learned I could serve the CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocates] program for my pro bono as a law student,” she says. She did, and, in 2010, she became a certified child attorney. She’s gone on to represent a number of children, many of them infants, on a pro bono basis, about how they are faring under court-directed custody arrangements or in foster homes.

In the end, her research in Bice helped prove that the Younger abstention was appropriate to the case, and the 5th Circuit upheld the district court ruling, leaving the public defender fee system intact. “At the time, that source was the majority of funding for public defenders and if that had been removed, public defense would have probably shut down as they looked for other means,” Broussard says. “It’s still not what it used to be, but without that it would have been even worse.”

By then, Broussard was hooked. She would go on to assist public defender boards at the state, parish and city levels with other legal issues, including fighting for better visitation access for New Orleans public defenders at local jail facilities; and on behalf of the state in various funding availability matters.

“I love the work I do with the Public Defender Board and the dedicated attorneys I get to work with,” she says. “Their passion has made me passionate about public defense.”

She also continued her pro bono representation of children, and in October 2017 she became a foster parent herself.

It’s going to be difficult to part with the two young children she is fostering if they eventually must leave her care, but the important thing is how she can influence their future during the time she has with them. “Providing them a stable home for as long as I can is worth it,” she says.

 


 

Funding Public Defender Programs 

According to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and last updated in 2015, the public defender services in 22 states are entirely state-funded, while the services in 27 states and the District of Columbia are funded by local jurisdictions or counties—including Louisiana. The remaining state, Maine, appoints private attorneys rather than employing public defenders.

Source: bjs.gov

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