The Missouri Supreme Court considered Tuesday whether the state's public defenders can decline to represent additional poor defendants when their caseloads grow too high.
The state's public defender system has set maximum caseload standards for its offices. When limits are exceeded for three consecutive months, the public defender director can opt to certify that an office has limited availability for cases. Officials then are supposed to work with prosecutors and judges to reduce demand for public defenders and temporarily refuse cases for that office if an agreement is not reached.
Public defenders contend requiring lawyers to juggle too many cases means they cannot competently represent their clients, creating ethical issues for the attorney and constitutional problems for defendants' rights to legal representation.
"They are throwing thousands of people under the bus," said Stephen Hanlon, an attorney who represented the state Public Defender Commission. "A lawyer cannot do that."
Critics question whether the caseload standards are valid and whether public defenders should be allowed to refuse clients despite an obligation to represent those accused of a crime and facing potential jail time without the funds to hire an attorney.
Donovan Dobbs, an assistant prosecuting attorney from Christian County, told the high court the policies affect the entire criminal justice system and have not been fully fleshed out. In a written argument, the prosecutor's office said "a categorical refusal by the public defender to provide services is an untenable approach to the public defender's reported caseload crisis."
No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the southwestern Missouri case triggering the discussion will not be affected. Jared Blacksher was charged with felonies for burglary and forgery in Christian County. He qualified for a public defender, but the local office said it could not accept new cases when it received his request in July 2010. A judge appointed a public defender anyway, and the issue was appealed to the state Supreme Court. In the meantime, Blacksher pleaded guilty in February.
A judge appointed by the Supreme Court to gather evidence in the case concluded the public defenders' rules help to solve its problems but could worsen the situation for the rest of the legal system and the rules do not account for the use of support staff. The public defender protocol "is not inaccurate, but there is serious question as to whether it is sufficiently accurate to justify the imposition of the negative consequences on the rest of the criminal justice system," Senior Judge J. Miles Sweeney wrote in his report.
Missouri's public defender system has been a concern for several years. A special state legislative committee studied the issue in 2006 and lawmakers three years later approved a measure to allow the Public Defender Commission to set maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists but it was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Responding to other rules established by the public defender system, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that public defenders cannot reject certain categories of criminal defendants because of high caseloads. Instead the high court said they should work with prosecutors and judges to come up with alternatives when public defenders do not believe they can handle additional cases.
Cat Kelly, the director of the Public Defender Commission, watched the Supreme Court arguments from the courtroom. She said high caseloads are an issue throughout the state, noting eight public defender offices have been certified as having limited availability and 22 more offices are eligible for the designation. She said if the public defender system cannot use its current rules, attorneys likely would need to file individual motions with trial judges, asking to be excused from cases because of their high caseload.
Kelly said the ultimate solution likely involves ensuring the entire criminal justice system has sufficient funding plus "taking a good long look at what we are criminalizing and seeking jail time on and whether as citizens we are willing to pay for what that entails."