Career public defender Derwyn Bunton ’98 takes new role as chief legal officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Derwyn Bunton ’98 was working as a juvenile public defender in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The chaos that followed, he says, revealed to the nation how broken Louisiana’s criminal justice system was. “With so many eyes on Louisiana, people saw how poorly the system was resourced, how poorly it was structured, and how vulnerable and unprotected unrepresented poor people were, particularly poor Black and brown people in New Orleans,” he says.

Derwyn Bunton
Derwyn Bunton ’98

He resolved to fight for change. In the aftermath of the storm, Bunton became the executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights where he joined forces with former colleagues, local nonprofits, and community leaders to discuss and reimagine the future of public defense. Part of their vision was a defender’s office that was focused on clients and that did not rely on the court system for funding and for appointing lawyers. In 2007, they helped pass the Louisiana Public Defender Act, which created a statewide infrastructure to unify local offices. After serving first on a local board that oversaw New Orleans’ public defenders office, Orleans Public Defenders (OPD), Bunton was named its chief public defender in 2009.

During Bunton’s 13 years leading the office, he shifted OPD from being run by exclusively part-time, private lawyers appointed by the court to a full-time, dedicated staff of public defense lawyers, advocates, and administrators. Through grants and government advocacy, he increased the office’s budget from $1.8 million in 2009 to $13 million today, including helping to pass a 2020 city ordinance that requires the New Orleans city council to provide funds to the office matching at least 85 percent of the budget that is allotted to the district attorney’s office.

In September 2022, Bunton left OPD to become the chief legal officer of the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he directs the nonprofit’s legal strategy, including efforts to protect democracy, end mass incarceration, and confront white supremacy.

In this Q&A, NYU Law spoke with Bunton about how the Juvenile Defender Clinic helped ignite his interest in public defense, what he’s most proud of accomplishing at OPD, and why he sees his work at the Southern Poverty Law Center as a return on investment.

How did you first become interested in the law?

I first got interested in the law in high school. Growing up in Southern California, we didn’t have a lot of money. My mom would move my brother and I and my sisters to different places as long as she could pay the rent, and when rent got tight, she’d move to another, and that was sort of a pattern: always staying a step ahead of eviction. And I remember in high school there was one moment when my mom was really distressed on the phone, and she just kept saying she needed more time.

That was the moment where we could not get ahead of eviction. I came home from school one day and all our belongings were in the driveway. I remember thinking to myself, having seen lawyers at work in various other places in my life, with family involved in the criminal legal system and other legal settings: folks listened to lawyers.

I thought that I could be one of those lawyers that made people listen, like they weren’t listening to my mom, and decided I would pursue the law to try and give voice to folks who needed someone to give them voice, and to make decisionmakers and people in power pay attention to the people they perceive as not having any power and any voice.

Were there any experiences during your time at NYU Law that you found formative for your career?

When I came to the Law School, I knew I was interested in public interest law, but I didn’t know in what direction. The beauty of NYU Law is you get to try all sorts of things.

The best thing I did was the Juvenile Defender Clinic with Randy Hertz, [Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law]; Kim Taylor-Thompson, [now professor of clinical law emerita], and Jacqueline Deane [’85, then an adjunct professor]. That’s where public defense—especially for the juvenile population—just sort of caught fire for me.

I still have regular contact with Randy Hertz, who I talk to before pretty much any major decision I make. I remember once, when I was a young defender, I was working on some case and I emailed Randy some question, probably around one in the morning, and he replied right away. And I asked him: “Why are you awake at this time?” and he said, “Probably the same reason you are,” which is that there is important work that needed to be done.

Tell me about your start as a public defender. How did you begin thinking about changing the larger structure of defender’s offices?

My first job out of law school was with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana doing civil rights work, conditions of confinement work, on behalf of children in the state of Louisiana. At the time I joined, the state of Louisiana held more than 2,000 kids in juvenile prisons across the state—in horrible conditions. So we sued them in 1998, settling the case in May 2005. When we closed the settlement agreement, there were under 350 kids in juvenile prisons across the state of Louisiana.

That work was as meaningful as any work I’ve ever done. It really forced me to get out, get around, learn a lot more about my clients and think deeply about our clients’ communities, particularly communities of color and young folk in New Orleans. That was eye-opening and deeply enriching. The systemic racism, the economic disparities were on full display. Louisiana’s criminal legal system is where bad economic policy, bad public safety policy, bad education policy, come to rest.

Then Katrina hit. Until that time, defenders and advocates were seeing the poor representation people received and trying to figure out the best strategy for reform. It turns out the best strategy for reform is an environmental and economic catastrophe, because what Katrina did was rip the top off of our criminal legal system—literally and figuratively—and it was on full display both locally and nationally. With the help of some local partners and advocates, we were able to make local changes and pass state legislation to make restructuring more possible, moving away from court-centered and towards client-centered representation.

In 2009, I was offered the job of chief public defender for New Orleans, and we began out of the ashes of Katrina to rebuild our office.

What were some major victories you would point to during your time as chief public defender?

One victory is surviving. There were a number of times folks were very clearly trying to get me out of my position as chief defender. With the help of the community and the strength of our organization, I was able to survive a lot of that. There were a bunch of budget milestones, like being in the city council budget for the first time ever. When we did it, we were the only public defender office receiving local support in the state—meanwhile, every prosecutor’s office in the state of Louisiana receives local support—and that was huge.

As a career milestone, the respect Orleans Public Defenders earned as an organization is probably my proudest achievement. We went from this organization folks could forget and neglect to one that was pushing criminal legal system policy, fighting for bail reform, fighting for a smaller jail, litigating and attacking unjust and illegal practices in the courts. Things the prior public defender office just never could do. The strengths and efforts of a lot of people pushed this public defender’s office to that level of prominence.

What are you looking forward to in your new role?

I am really excited to be a part of the Southern Poverty Law Center in this particular moment. Much like the public defender’s office when I jumped in, the Southern Poverty Law Center is instituting a new strategic vision and model for the center. I thought, this is my next gig. With a reach that is national and regional in scope, I want to take the lessons I’ve learned to help the Southern Poverty Law Center leverage all of the magnificent talent and resources that it has to transform unjust spaces in the South, which are the same spaces that I’ve occupied now for more than 20 years as a lawyer.

In an odd twist, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which is where I began as a young lawyer, started with a grant from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Now being chief legal officer, that commitment they made to that little organization, and ultimately me, has a return on investment that I feel obligated to live up to.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo credit: Southern Poverty Law Center. Posted February 22, 2023.