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Private law firm to help New Orleans DA by screening criminal cases

Jason Williams is asking for help from what may seem like an unusual source.

NEW ORLEANS — With serious staffing shortages at the Orleans District Attorney's Office, Jason Williams is asking for help from what may seem like an unusual source.
And that help will be coming from a name many people are familiar with.

We talked to two attorneys about this new arrangement, and they said it was not new. 

There are already Louisiana Supreme Court guidelines in place to make sure the new arrangement is done ethically, with no attorney-defendant conflicts of interest.

Attorney Morris Bart is known for his tagline “One call. That's all,” in his commercials. For 40 years he's asked to handle your lawsuits and settlements in car wrecks and on-the-job personal injuries. 

So, some citizens are surprised to hear his firm will now handle case screenings, combing through evidence and police reports then recommending to the DA if he should prosecute or not.  

We asked experienced attorneys if outsourcing a governmental job to a private law firm will work.

“There's nothing improper about the DA getting assistance from private lawyers in this situation. Ultimately, the DA has got to make the decision whether to refuse charges, or whether to prosecute someone. He has the sole constitutional ability to do that,” said Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino.

He believes civil attorneys don't need specific criminal law knowledge to fairly apply the law, and says this could speed up the process for screening cases.

“Right now it takes an extraordinarily long time particularly in felony cases for the DA to make these decisions,” said Ciolino. 

“This could speed things up if they can get experienced lawyers who know criminal law. Criminal law's very different than civil law. It's not one call that's all” said Walter Becker, attorney and partner at Chaffe McCall Law Firm.

Becker says it's best for screening lawyers to have criminal trial experience. He was a prosecutor in the DA's office in the early 80s and says the DA outsourced screenings back then too, and it worked out well under different circumstances.

“I'm not sure they were brought in at that time because there was a crisis,” said Becker about the 1980s. “I think we've got a crisis right now. We've got a crisis of crime. We've got a crisis of arrests, a crisis of prosecution, and so this is a question of need.”

“But even if the DA's office had all of the resources it needed to screen cases, there's still something to be gained for getting the community involved in law enforcement and public safety,” Ciolino said.  

Both attorneys commend this work being done pro bono, or at no cost to the city.

“I think Mr. Bart ought to be applauded for volunteering his people pro bono, because lawyers obviously have time sheets,” Becker added.

The DA's office would not comment on camera, but e-mailed that this partnership will ensure they are meeting the demands of a busy docket.

Morris Bart told us he will comment at a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the DA's office. 

Full statement from Jason Williams’ office:

“Our office has been working to identify new resources and partnerships to ensure we are meeting the demands of a busy docket including partnering with Morris Bart. We look forward to sharing more information about this soon.”

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