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Amanda Martin Becomes the First Black Female Lawyer to Serve as the 15th JDC’s Chief Public Defender | Courts

Amanda Martin has always imagined herself to be the first at something.

Growing up, the Lafayette native and sports enthusiast thought she would make history as a sports commentator, but that glass ceiling was shattered in part by Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy, the first black woman to host a network sports broadcast.

Instead, Martin goes down in history as the first woman and first black person to serve as a district attorney for the 15th Judicial District.

The attorney was selected as the new defender by state public defender Remy Starns and confirmed by the Louisiana Public Defender Board on October 10. She was chosen from a pool of 12 applicants after a five-month selection process, which included interviews with a panel of local attorneys, Starns and staff, and the state’s public defender’s board.

Martin succeeds longtime defender G. Paul Marx, who served as district defender for nearly 30 combined years over two stints between 1984 and 2022. Marx is being sued by a former public defender who has made allegations of sex discrimination and sexual abuse. unequal pay.

The new district attorney brings a diverse legal background to the office, having started her career as an attorney for Shell in Houston, before opening a private practice that handled everything from criminal defense and property law. family to bankruptcy and workers’ compensation.

After returning to Lafayette in 2011, Martin worked as a public defender in the office she now runs, before leaving for a prosecutorial position with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.

Serving on the other side of the courtroom prepared her in a unique way for her new role, giving her insight into how prosecutors review cases, the mindset involved in assessing what charges to pursue and how to strengthen her negotiation on the defense side, she said.

“Growing up, there were always two sides to everything – two sides to a story, two sides to a coin, two sides to a pancake… I gained another perspective. I gained another process of thinking, another set of skills and another base,” said Martin.

Martin said she pursued the role of district advocate because she always felt called to a life of service. Growing up, Martin said she made it a priority to be kind to others, at school and in her neighborhood, doing things like tutoring children on the porch of her house to help herself. ensure they graduate from high school.

“It’s work that directly affects the community we live in,” she said.

This attraction to public office had previously led Martin to run for district judge in 2020, a seat that was eventually filled by Royale Colbert.

Martin grew up in the McComb neighborhood at 16th Street and Sunnyside Lane, crammed into a house with his mother, four older siblings, aunt and aunt’s 12 children. The family had no vehicle and resources were limited, but her mother and aunt always made sure they had what they needed, she said.

“What I had, and it overcame everything I thought I lacked, was love. We grew up in a loving home and a loving environment,” Martin said.

The lawyer grew into a voracious reader with a thirst for learning, walking to the public library every week to bring home a new collection of books she had read under the covers at night with a flashlight. She worked hard and her mother, Ceola Martin, encouraged her to go as far as her potential could take her.

Breaking down barriers of representation in her new position is rewarding, but she wishes her mother, who battled diabetes and heart disease and died in 2001, could be there to see it.

“My mom saw the potential in me that I could never know I would have… She always encouraged me,” she said.

Stepping into the district defender position is worth it, but it’s a challenge, Martin said.

Like other public defense offices across the state, the 15th Judicial District Public Defenders Office, which handles cases in the parishes of Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion, struggles with unstable funding and recruiting and retention of lawyers, she said.

Their funding comes from court costs and fees, which fluctuate, and state support. The poor funding structure causes instability that pushes lawyers to take better-paying jobs elsewhere, costing talent in the office, she said. Those who remain balance heavy workloads; last year, Martin estimated that his office handled 10,000 cases.

In 2016, the office had to curtail services, putting indigent clients on waiting lists, as some lawyers were laid off and others took pay cuts due to budget shortfalls, she said. .

Starns, the state’s public defender, called on the state to no longer depend on sentencing and user fees to fund a significant portion of public defense budgets. In December 2021, a Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s report noted that more than half of Louisiana’s public defender offices had a budget shortfall in fiscal year 2019-20 as COVID closures derailed the collection of fines and costs. The office of the public defender of the 15th JDC was not among the loss-making offices.

“The district attorney is the equivalent of the district attorney, but our office is understaffed and underfunded,” Martin said.

After about three weeks on the job, Martin’s day-to-day is a combination of supervising his team of about 80 staff, most of whom are full-time public defenders and private attorneys who contract with the office, and office administration.

Duties include managing caseloads and ensuring cases are assigned to the right attorneys, liaising with criminal justice stakeholders including judges and local law enforcement, managing the budget of the office, writing monthly reports for the state and acting as duty counsel when needed. .

Martin said his vision was to make lawyers in the three offices more like a team; work with stakeholders, such as the district attorney’s office and court staff, to make changes to reduce inefficiencies that add unnecessary strain to the workload of its staff; providing a better support framework for all lawyers, including training and mentoring; and improve the public perception of public defenders.

“We practice in one of the most difficult areas of law because we deal with people’s lives, their freedoms and their livelihoods. People are subject to the loss of their freedom and we need to make sure that as one body in this office we work to protect their freedom or preserve their freedom in the best possible way,” Martin said.