Amanda Martin always imagined being the first to something.
Growing up, the Lafayette native and sports enthusiast thought she would make history as a sportscaster, but that glass ceiling was partially shattered by Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy, the first black woman to host a sports show on the network.
Instead, Martin makes history as the first woman and first black person to serve as District Defender for the 15th Circuit.
The attorney was selected as the new defense attorney by District Attorney Rémy Starns and confirmed by the Louisiana Public Defender Board on October 10. She was selected from a pool of 12 applicants after a five-month selection process that included rounds of interviews with a panel of local attorneys, Starns and associates, and the state Public Defenders Committee.
Martin succeeds longtime defense attorney G. Paul Marx, who served as district defense attorney for nearly 30 years in two terms between 1984 and 2022. Marx is being sued by a former public defender who has raised allegations of gender discrimination and 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 dealing with everything from criminal defense and family law to bankruptcy and workers’ compensation.
After returning to Lafayette in 2011, Martin worked as a public defender in the office she now heads before accepting a position as a prosecutor with the Louisiana Attorney’s Office.
Serving on the other side of the courtroom uniquely prepared her for her new role, giving her insight into how prosecutors review cases, the mindset required when evaluating the charges to be prosecuted, and how they can strengthen negotiations from the defense side, she said.
“Growing up, everything always had two sides – two sides of a story, two sides of a coin, two sides of a pancake… I gained a different perspective. I’ve gained a different thought process, different skills and a different foundation,” said Martin.
Martin said she accepted the role of District Defender because she has always felt called to a life of service. Growing up, Martin said she made it a priority to take care of others at school and in her neighborhood, doing things like tutoring kids on the porch of her home to make sure they graduated high school.
“It’s work that has a direct impact on the community that we live in,” she said.
This drive for public service previously prompted Martin to run for district judge in 2020, a seat eventually filled by Royale Colbert.
Martin grew up in the McComb neighborhood at 16th Street and Sunnyside Lane, crammed into a house with her mother, her four older siblings, her aunt, and her aunt’s 12 children. The family didn’t have a vehicle and resources were limited, but her mother and aunt always made sure they had basic necessities, she said.
“What I had and overcame everything I believed I was missing was love. We grew up in a loving household and a loving environment,” said Martin.
The lawyer grew up to be a voracious and studious reader, going to the public library every week to bring home a fresh collection of books she’d been reading 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 fulfilling, but she wishes her mother, who struggled with diabetes and heart disease and died in 2001, could be here to see it.
“My mom saw potential in me that I never knew I would have … She always encouraged me,” she said.
The step up to district defender’s position is rewarding but challenging, Martin said.
Like other public defense offices statewide, the 15th Judicial District Public Defenders Office, which handles cases in the communities of Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion, struggles with unstable funding and attorney recruitment and retention, she said.
They are funded through court costs and fees, which fluctuate, and government support. The poor funding structure creates instability that drives lawyers to take better-paying jobs elsewhere, costing the office talent, she said. Those who remain balance heavy fall burdens; Last year, Martin estimated her office handled 10,000 cases.
In 2016, the office had to scale back its services and place impoverished clients on waiting lists as some lawyers were fired and others took pay cuts because of budget cuts, she said.
Starns, the state’s public defender, has called on the state to move away from reliance on convictions and user fees to fund a significant portion of public defense budgets. In December 2021, a report by Louisiana’s Comptroller by Legislation highlighted that more than half of Louisiana’s public defense attorney offices ran a budget deficit in the 2019-2020 fiscal year as COVID closures derailed fine and fee collection. The Office of the Public Defender of the 15th JDC was not among the offices that ran a deficit.
“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 life is a combination of overseeing her team of approximately 80 associates, the majority of whom are full-time full-time defense attorneys and private attorneys contracted with the firm, and administering the firm.
Her responsibilities include managing case counts and ensuring cases are assigned to the right attorneys, liaising with criminal justice stakeholders including judges and local law enforcement agencies, managing the office budget, preparing monthly reports for the state and serving as an attorney on call if required .
Martin said their vision is to make the lawyers in the three offices more of a team; Work with stakeholders such as prosecutors and judicial staff to make changes to reduce inefficiencies that unnecessarily strain their staff’s caseloads; Providing a better support framework for all lawyers, including training and mentoring; and to 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 at risk of losing their freedom and we need to make sure that as a body in this office we are working to protect or preserve their freedom as best we can,” Martin said.