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Judge finds St. Louis County public defenders have unconstitutionally high caseloads

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
The presiding judge in St. Louis County has ruled that nearly all of the circuit's public defenders have unconstitutionally high caseloads.

Updated March 21 at 6:15 p.m. with additional comments — The presiding judge in St. Louis County has ruled that nearly 80 percent of the circuit’s public defenders have caseloads that leave them unable to effectively represent their clients.

In an order issued Monday, Circuit Judge Douglas Beach proposed several solutions, including a waitlist for defendants who are not in jail and having private attorneys handle low-level felonies.

“It is clear that the issues facing the Public Defender are not new,” Beach wrote. As a judge, he said, he is equally as responsible as public defenders for protecting the rights of individuals who cannot afford an attorney.

Michael Barrett, the head of the state’s public defender office, praised Beach for addressing the caseload concerns in St. Louis County.

“The public defender appreciates the Court’s leadership on the critical issues of attorney ethics and access to justice,” he said in a written statement. “We look forward to working with the judges of the 21st Circuit to make sure that the legal needs of indigent defendants are addressed in a timely and competent manner.”

District public defender Stephen Reynolds asked for a meeting with Beach in January to discuss caseload issues. State law allows a court to grant individual attorneys the right to reject cases, though Reynolds asked for help for the entire office. Over the objections of prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office, Beach agreed to consider Reynolds’ request.

“To follow the statutory authority of one public defender at a time, this Court is placed in the position of holding literally hundreds of hearings a month on the caseload of each individual Public Defender attorney found to have excessive caseloads,” Beach wrote. “It is not the place for this Court to supervise and manage the workload of the Public Defender’s Office, let alone determining on an ongoing basis if they have ethical issues with the caseloads they carry.”

A spokesman for McCulloch said the office had not seen the order and would not comment. Reynolds agreed with Barrett’s comments.

Beach is giving Reynolds 14 days to determine a maximum caseload for each of his attorneys. If all of the trial-level attorneys have reached that number, clients who are not in jail would be put on a waitlist for public defender services. As caseloads drop below the limits, defendants would come off the list.

Beach is also seeking feedback on the best way to have private attorneys handle drug offenses, failure to pay child support and other low-level felonies. It was not immediately apparent if there would be enough attorneys willing to handle the cases, but a St. Louis-based nonprofit, the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel, has been working since last May to boost the number of private attorneys willing to do criminal defense work.

A spokeswoman for the court said all of the mechanisms should be set up within the next few months.

Barrett said in addition to St. Louis County, six other public defender offices had asked for help reducing caseloads. Judges denied some of those requests, he said, and those who agreed to consider them have ignored a 30-day deadline to issue a report.

Caseload relief

Concerns about the workload of public defender offices across the state has been around for years. Numerous studies that have looked at the system statewide say it should have nearly twice as many lawyers to meet standards set by the American Bar Association for the minimal time needed to adequately represent clients. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sued the state in federal court last year, saying the high caseloads routinely lead to unconstitutional delays. That case is set to go to trial in late May.

“Beach’s order in a small step in the right direction to the extent that the court is acknowledging the widespread caseload issues in that particular district office,” said Jason Williamson, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s criminal law reform project.

But, Williamson said, the solutions proposed do not help defendants who cannot afford legal representation. Waitlists, he said, are especially problematic, even if a defendant is not in jail.

“The fact that you don’t have a lawyer communicating with you, you don’t have a lawyer investigating your case, is going to be harmful,” he said.

Public defender offices have always used private attorneys to handle cases where there is a conflict of interest. In late 2017, the public defender in Boone County, which includes Columbia, began assigning cases to private attorneys after a colleague of his was disciplined for failing to adequately represent clients. And on March 1, private attorneys began handling most of the public defense workload in Texas County, near Fort Leonard Wood.

Talmage Newton, a defense attorney in St. Louis, said there are enough attorneys to handle the cases Beach had suggested. The bigger concern, he said, is quality control.

“You do not want to assign a murder or a B felony to an attorney that routinely handles only traffic tickets, or a complex drug case to an attorney that only handles DWI’s,” Newton said. And, he added, it may also prove more cost-effective to give public defender offices enough money to hire additional attorneys.

In his order, Beach required training for any attorney who wants to help reduce caseloads.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann


Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.