JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A divided Missouri Supreme Court concluded Tuesday that a judge exceeded his authority when appointing a public defender despite a rule that restricts new clients to control caseloads.
The state public defender system has set maximum caseload standards for its offices. When limits are exceeded for three consecutive months, the public defender director can certify that the local office has limited availability for cases. Officials then are supposed to work with prosecutors and judges to reduce demand for public defenders and can refuse new cases if an agreement is not reached.
A judge in southwestern Missouri's Christian County ordered a public defender in 2010 to defend Jared Blacksher, who was charged with felonies for burglary and forgery. Although he qualified for a public defender, the local office said it could not accept new cases.
The Supreme Court ruled, in a 4-3 decision, that the caseload rule should have been applied because nothing was shown to suggest that the protocol was invalid or inapplicable.
However, the high court's ruling does not affect Blacksher, who has already pleaded guilty to a count of forgery and burglary.
Public defenders represent those accused of a crime and facing potential jail time without the funds to hire an attorney.
Cat Kelly, the director of the Public Defender Commission, said officials will determine how to implement the rule. She said the Supreme Court's decision is an important step forward and means defendants have a right to competent and effective legal representation under the Sixth Amendment, which among other things guarantees citizens' right to a speedy trial and legal counsel.
"It does certainly hold that the Sixth Amendment is more than words on a piece of paper in a museum, and that's critical," Kelly said.
Missouri's public defender system has generated concern for years.
A special state legislative committee studied the issue in 2006. Three years later, lawmakers approved a measure that would have allowed the Public Defender Commission to set maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists, but the bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. The Missouri Supreme Court in 2009 ruled that public defenders cannot reject certain categories of criminal defendants because of large caseloads.
In the high court's opinion Tuesday, Judge Laura Denvir Stith urged judges, prosecutors and public defenders to work together for a solution. Stith wrote that meetings should be conducted on the record while trial judges should manage court dockets to "triage" cases and limit the need for public defenders to refuse cases.
Besides the Springfield public defender office that covers Christian, Greene and Taney counties, seven additional public defender offices serving 20 counties have been placed on limited availability. Eight more offices covering 33 counties have notified local courts they are at risk of closure because of their caseloads.
Kelly said the process has been on-hold awaiting the Supreme Court ruling and will start moving forward.
The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys did not immediately return a call seeking comment.