New Orleans’ Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton is taking a leave of absence from the Orleans Public Defenders office as he continues his run for judge in Section E of Criminal District Court, according to a Wednesday morning press release from the office. Danny Engelberg, the office’s chief of trials, will serve as interim chief while Bunton is on leave.

The Section E seat was previously held by Keva Landrum, who stepped down earlier this year in order to run for Orleans Parish District Attorney. 

Bunton signaled that he was considering a leave last month in an interview with The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, saying that his campaign for judge could interfere with his advocacy work on behalf of the public defenders. Bunton has maintained that there is no legal or ethical need for him to step down. 

In a Wednesday interview, he said he made his decision “from a very nuts and bolts practical standpoint” in order to give himself “the best chances for success in the election.”

“I made my decision based on my ability to win the election, and I think being a full-time candidate gives my campaign the best chance for success,” he said.

Bunton is running for the judgeship against Rhonda Goode-Douglass, a longtime prosecutor in Orleans and Jefferson Parish. The election will take place on November 3. 

If Bunton wins, the state Public Defender Board will start the process of appointing a new chief defender for Orleans Parish — although the exact timeline for when someone would get appointed is unclear. 

Dane Ciolino, an attorney and law professor at Loyola University, has suggested that if Bunton wins that he would need to recuse himself from all current cases being handled by the public defender’s office that come before him as a judge. But Bunton said he disagrees with that assessment, and would make a case-by-case decision whether or not to recuse based on his direct involvement. 

“This is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this. We’ve had to deal with this situation multiple times with prosecutors leaving their role as prosecutors and becoming judges,” he said.

Bunton pointed specifically to Landrum, who became the judge in Section E following a brief stint as interim DA.

“It will be something similar to when Keva Landrum took the bench after being interim DA,” Bunton said. “She did not sit on the bench for months with no cases because she was interim DA.”

And Bunton said that the number of cases he is forced to recuse from should be minimal, because in his leadership position he didn’t have a regular caseload, nor much direct involvement in individual cases.

If he loses, Bunton said he will return to his position as head of the public defenders office.

Bunton has run the day-to-day operations at the office — which defends people accused of crimes who cannot afford a lawyer — since 2009. The office estimates that it handles about 85 percent of criminal cases in New Orleans. 

During his time at the office Bunton has been a vocal advocate for restructuring funding for public defense and doing away with Louisiana’s so-called ‘user-pay’ criminal justice system, which relies heavily on fines and fees paid by defendants. Bunton has argued that the system is unreliable and insufficient to provide adequate legal representation for poor defendants.  

Several times during his tenure, Bunton called for his staff attorneys to refuse to take up new cases, citing a lack of resources and an overwhelming caseload. 

Bunton is one of several current and former New Orleans public defenders running for judge. Meg Garvey, a staff attorney at the office who is running for Municipal and Traffic Court judge against incumbent Paul Sens. A spokesperson for the office, Lindsey Hortenstine, said that Garvey has taken a leave of absence from the office as well to focus on her campaign. 

Meanwhile, defendants and lawyers have returned to the Criminal District Court building as it moved into phase three of its COVID-19 reopening plans this week. Court sections are now operating on a staggered schedule, with half holding court on Monday and Wednesday, and the other half on Tuesday and Thursday. Jury trials, however, are still suspended until further notice. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...