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Missouri public defenders take problem of high caseloads to high court

(via Flickr/s_falkow)
  • Listen to the oral arguments before the Missouri Supreme Court in this case

Missouri’s public defenders have argued for years that they have too many cases.

So in 2010 the public defender commission put a plan in place that allowed each of its districts to stop taking cases when its attorneys became too busy.

That practice came into dispute almost immediately and is before the Missouri Supreme Court.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports.

"A typical caseload."

St. Louis County is the biggest county in Missouri.

The public defender office here has more than 1,800 cases pending and just 12 full-time lawyers.

District Defender Stephen Reynolds oversees the office and keeps tracks of how many cases each of his attorneys have.

“Right now I’m looking at a screen that shows each lawyer in our office and the number of cases assigned to them,” Reynolds said.

One of the attorneys he clicks on has 118 cases.

“Thirteen of which are probation violations, three of which are juvenile cases, and the rest are adult felonies, he said. “And that’s a typical caseload.”

That leaves one attorney with more than 100 felony cases.

According to a protocol established by the Missouri Public Defender Commission attorneys should have, at most, 70 felony cases at a time.

Refusing new clients and the case of Christian County

The same protocol allows public defender districts with too many total cases to stop taking new clients.

But Stephen Reynolds and public defenders across the state are waiting on the Missouri Supreme Court to decide if that’s constitutional.

“It’s a tough decision for them because obviously all people charged with crimes are entitled to counsel, but they’re entitled to counsel that’s competent and has time to listen to their case,” Reynolds said.

The Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December. (You can listen to these oral arguments via the link at the top of this story).

The case involves a public defender district in Christian County, which alerted the courts in July 2010 it would stop taking new cases.

A few weeks later a judge went ahead and assigned a public defender anyway.

The Missouri Public Defender Commission filed suit arguing its attorneys risk violating ethical standards by taking too many clients.

Attorney Stephen Hanlon represented the commission in arguments before the high court last month.

“No judge may ever order a lawyer, in this case a public defender, to violate his or her solemn oath taken upon admission to the bar to obey duly promulgated rules, to abide by the rules of professional conduct and to support the Constitution of the United States,” Hanlon said in his opening remarks.

Several of the Supreme Court judges, including Judge William Ray Price, Jr., asked Hanlon if trial judges would have enough leeway to question whether a public defenders’ caseload was really too heavy.

“How do you make the determination when there’s a dispute over whether maybe they can represent some more people? Judge Price asked.

Hanlon answered that judges should defer to the Public Defender Commission’s protocol.

The right to an attorney

But Christian County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Donovan Dobbs argued judges are  constitutionally required to appoint a lawyer for indigent clients.

“The issue before the court today and the posture of this case is whether or not the Honorable John Waters followed the law,” Dobbs said. “On July 28, 2010 Judge Waters had before him a defendant. Defendant Jared Blackshear was incarcerated, he was charged with several felony offenses and he was asking the court for an attorney.”

Chief Justice Richard Teitelman quickly interrupted with a question about competent counsel.

“Does the judge have to take into consideration the ability of the attorney to effectively represent the defendant?” he asked.

Dobbs argued that it should be up to each individual public defender to prove their caseload is too heavy, not a protocol that Dobbs said has yet to be thoroughly tested.

The case is being watched closely not only by public defenders in Missouri, but in other states like Florida where case burden is also a concern.

A ruling is not expected from the Missouri Supreme Court for several months.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.