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Public Defender 'Perplexed' by High Court Ruling on Caseloads

The American Bar Association

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled last week that a public defender in southeast Missouri had to get approval from a judge before rejecting new cases.

The head of Missouri’s Public Defender System, Michael Barrett, tells KSMU the most recent ruling creates a conflict for his team of attorneys because they are expected to take on an extraordinarily high number of cases—while still being held to the same ethical standards, and disciplanary action, as other lawyers.

Missouri’s public defenders are the state lawyers who represent alleged criminals who cannot afford an attorney. That legal representation is a right enshrined in the United States Constitution. And these lawyers say they can’t ethically represent so many clients at once, due to a lack of funding.

“We’re kind of stuck in a catch-22 because in September, the Supreme Court punished a lawyer, a seasoned lawyer who has 20-plus years’ experience because he couldn’t do all he needed to do under the ethics rules for the client," Barrett said.

In that ruling, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to place a Columbia-based public defender on probation for a year after an ethical review found that he had neglected clients. Barrett contends this neglect was due to an impossibly heavy caseload.

“The Supreme Court was very clear and said, ‘Look.  You’re not any different from other lawyers. You have to follow the same ethical standards, and having too many cases is no excuse.  If you have too many cases, you need to either 1) quit, or 2) turn away excessive cases," Barrett said.

“And you know, we tried to do just that in the aftermath of this case to follow the directive of the Supreme Court. But the lower courts have said, ‘No, you’re taking the case. We’re ordering you in. And if you don’t take the case, we’re gonna hold you in contempt,’" Barrett said in the interview.

Missouri law provides public defenders with the option of asking a presiding judge of their circuit court for relief due to heavy caseloads.  According to Missouri Revised Statute 600.063, the judge can either deny that relief, or provide relief in the several ways, including appointing a private attorney, modifying the conditions of the defendant's release, placing the case on a waiting list, or granting a continuance. 

If that relief is not granted, the public defender then may appeal the decision.  In its ruling last week, the Missouri Supreme Court cited those statutes in its decision, saying there is a procedure outlined in law that should be followed.

The Missouri State Public Defender also closed its doors to new clients in 2010 when attorneys reached a certain caseload.  In 2011, KSMU reported in our series "Justice for All" that Christian County resident Jared Blacksher sat in jail without an attorney for seven months because his local public defender's office had reached its capacity for new clients and closed its doors. 

The former head of the public defender system pushed for more funding at that time, too. But in the end, no long-term solution came about as a result.

Missouri's public defender system has long ranked near the bottom of the barrel in terms of funding nationwide, according to the American Bar Association. Click here to learn more about the "caseload math" behind how Missouri's public defenders have traditionally calculated caseload limits.

“We received the first significant increase from the legislature this past year. And our mindset was to be appreciative and to show the state what we can do with that funding. And so we were going to do the best that we could with the increase that we received," Barrett said.

“And then along comes the Supreme Court case that says, not withstanding how much resources you have or how many dollars you have, you have to meet these ethical standards, which creases a new environment for us," Barrett said.

Barrett says this means public defenders must comply by taking on new cases, regardless of how well they can represent clients; and to not do so, he says, is to risk losing their law licenses or be held in contempt of court.

When asked whether the public defender system is looking to other states to see how they do indigent defense more successfully, Barrett indicated the focus will be on strengthening the model Missouri currently has.

“You know, other states are actually envious of the model we have here in Missouri. A statewide system is generally regarded as the best approach to indigent defense," Barrett said, adding that flat-fee contracts for private attorneys are often frowned upon because they encourage the least amount of work on a case necessary.

Other states have public-private partnerships, rely on pro-bono work from private attorneys, or use innovative programs to address the need for legal representation for indigent criminal defendants. 

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