Public defenders raise concerns after recent court rulings

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Public defenders say two recent high court rulings have left them facing a troubling dilemma: take on too many cases and risk losing their law license to an ethics complaint, or refuse to take on an excessive workload and risk being held in contempt of court and jailed.

Missouri Supreme Court justices last month disciplined an attorney with a large caseload they said risked client neglect then later told a public defender she must ask permission before denying additional cases. Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett has long complained the public defender system is underfunded and that more attorneys are needed to ethically represent the state's poor.

Public defenders have tried to limit their caseloads since the first ruling in September in which a Columbia-based public defender was placed on probation for a year for failing to properly represent six clients. A judge in Boone County appointed nearly 40 private attorneys to represent criminal defendants. But last week, the state Supreme Court ruled against a southeastern Missouri public defender who wanted the high court to block a lower court judge from forcing her to take on more clients.

"Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court warned public defenders that they must follow the ethics rules just like every other lawyer, and that the answer to an excessive caseload was to either quit or decline to accept more cases than can be handled ethically," Barrett told The Kansas City Star. "Now the court tells us that we are indeed not like other lawyers and we must first get the court's permission before declining a case on ethics grounds."

To draw attention to the severe lack of public defenders for the number of cases requiring state-funded representation, Barrett last year appointed then-governor Jay Nixon as a defense attorney to represent a client. A court rejected the appointment. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit this year blaming inadequate funding for indigent clients languishing in jail or appearing in court without attorneys. The organization wants to force the state to increase funding and adequately provide counsel to indigent defendants.

The head of Springfield's public defender office has complained to the courts that attorneys are carrying excessive caseloads and cannot take on several cases, including that of a man charged with first-degree murder, the Springfield News-Leader reports. The letters state that the cases will be put on a waitlist until an attorney becomes available.

In Jackson County, about 25 public defenders filled a courtroom last Thursday to support Ruth Petsch, the head of the public defender's Kansas City office. Petsch said public defenders are putting new cases on hold until they can figure out how to ethically take them on without risking their law licenses.

"If I take on more cases than I can ethically handle, I'm open to discipline," Petsch said.

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