Public Defenders Can't Split Criminal Hairs

    JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) - Missouri's public defender system cannot refuse to handle certain categories of crime, but can quit taking all new cases if prosecutors and judges refuse to help ease the workload, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled.
     The Missouri Public Defender Commission adopted caseload rules in December 2007 to address issues created by an expanding workload and no additional staff.
     The rules stipulate that each district office calculate whether it has enough lawyer hours to devote to assigned cases. If there are not enough hours, the office is placed on limited availability and can refuse certain types of cases.
     The Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the caseload rules conflict with state laws on the duties of public defenders.
     The court also found that trial judges had no authority to appoint a public defender to handle a case in a private capacity. It urged public defenders, judges and prosecutors to work together to make sure that Missouri meets its constitutional obligation to provide effective counsel to indigent defendants.
     "As members of the legal profession, Missouri lawyers also have an obligation to ensure that this constitutional right is met," Judge Michael Wolff wrote. "Missouri's lawyers have been appointed to represent indigent defendants since Missouri first became a state and long before any court ever found a constitutional right to counsel."
     The 36-page ruling includes an appendix with statistics on National Advisory Council Caseload Standards and the Missouri Public Defenders modifications of the standards.