Missouri Justices Asked to Handle Strained Public Defender System

ST. LOUIS (CN) – St. Louis County public defenders who say they have too many cases to guarantee criminal defendants’ rights to effective counsel should have their claims heard by Missouri’s highest court, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday. 

In January, the St. Louis County Trial Office requested a conference to discuss the challenges facing 16 of the 20 public defenders in the office who said they were so overburdened they could not properly represent their clients.

After meetings between officials to discuss how to reduce their caseloads, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Douglas Beach agreed in March that the public defenders had too many cases and ruled that private attorneys should take on some lower-level cases to relieve them. 

But the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis found Wednesday that Beach should not have treated the claims as “court-tried” civil actions. Instead, administrative proceedings should be held to deal with caseload concerns under state law, Judge James Dowd wrote in the 14-page opinion. 

“Public defender caseload concerns would almost certainly be better addressed by the legislature through budgetary action or by enacting statutory caseload protocols or standards rather than by tasking the judicial branch with the potentially overwhelming responsibility of considering case by case whether each individual public defender who claims a caseload issue will in fact be unable to provide effective assistance of counsel,” Dowd added.

Under normal circumstances, the appeals court said it would rule to send the case back to the trial court and direct the presiding judge to handle the public defenders’ claims under Missouri’s Administrative Procedure Act and other state laws.

But given the “general interest and importance,” the court decided to transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court under rules of civil procedure. 

Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri Public Defender System, said he could not comment on pending litigation. The 21st District Defender Stephen Reynolds was not available for comment.

Chief Judge Lisa Page and Judge Kurt Odenwald joined Dowd’s opinion. 

The case is a small part of a broader crisis in the state’s public defender system. 

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney even if they cannot afford one. In Missouri, the situation for state public defenders has become so dire that they have refused to represent defendants.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action last year alleging that the state’s justice system is at breaking point. The group claimed defendants are being deprived of constitutional guarantees that were enshrined in the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.

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