Gonzales attorney takes on District Public Defender job

Wade McIntyre
Alan Robert, recently appointed District Public Defender for the 23rd Judicial District, joins staff members office manager and administrative assistant Kathleen Richard and administrative assistant Phyllis Glover outside the defender office in Gonzales.

Alan J. Robert, recently appointed District Public Defender for the 23rd Judicial District Public Defender Office, began preparing for his new job at an early age.

He remembers as a kid watching early western television shows like the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers, and being taken in by the drama as suspected rustlers were caught by lynch mobs and faced hanging without a trial.

Those accused were usually saved when the show’s hero, or the town sheriff, stepped up to face the mob, draw a line in the sand and ensure that the suspected rustler received a fair trial.

Since those youthful days, Robert has gone on to a distinguished career as a defense attorney, preparing along the way for the top defender’s job in the district. He has worked as Parish Judge Ad Hoc, a parish indigent defender, a city prosecutor, and was co-founder in 1979 of a non-profit legal services organization that provides legal service for the poor. But, he still remembers the lessons learned from the early westerns of his youth.

“We’re like the sheriff standing on the steps of the jail facing the mob,” he said of the Public Defender’s Office, its staff and more than 20 contract attorneys. “It’s our job to see that those accused persons get a fair trial.”

Robert, traces his family roots in Ascension Parish back three generations. His parents, Glen J. and Lena Mistretta Robert were successful business owners in Donaldsonville where Robert was born, raised and graduated from Ascension Catholic High School in 1968. He graduated from the LSU Law School in 1974.

After his appointment by the District Attorney to take over for attorney John Lieux who resigned July 31, Robert closed his private practice on Burnside Avenue and moved into the Public Defender’s Office at 12320 hwy. 44, Bldg. 4, Suite B, in Gonzales.

As head of the office, he is in charge of an agency serving Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, and operating with a $1 million annual budget.

About 20 percent of the budget is met with funds from the state, the remainder is self-generated, coming from court costs, fines and bond forfeitures.

Robert and the contract lawyers employed by the defender’s office represent the segment of the society classified as indigent. In Louisiana, that means a person earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $450 per week for one person with no dependents.

The standard is liberal because some people have low income jobs, but might not have enough money to hire an attorney when needed, Robert said.

Upon his appointment Aug. 31, Robert added two new defenders in the office to supplement one other defender recently hired by Lieux before his retirement.

American Bar Association guidelines recommend public defender attorney case loads of about 250 felony cases, 500 misdemeanor cases and 300 juvenile cases.

“With the new hires, we’re well staffed,” Robert said. “It significantly affects our case load.”

About 65 to 70 percent of the felony cases that go through the 23rd Judicial District Court are handled by the Public Defenders Office.

People aided by the office include those who are indigent, and may not understand the law, or who get arrested for something they did not do, or are in a situation where someone else knows more than they do about the about the proceedings against them.

Robert said sometimes his office has to defend DNA cases, where the expense for expert witnesses is high, but necessary for a proper defense.

The job of District Public Defender provides self-satisfaction in the sense that one is giving something back to the community, Robert said.

“It’s not that we’re not being paid,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing a job that needs to be done.”