Whether the State Public Defender System can cope with a tight budget by refusing to represent certain defendants is a question now before the State Supreme Court.
The court has heard oral arguments in two cases. In St. Francois County, public defenders refused to represent an indigent defendant, because he had earlier hired a private attorney. A regulation adopted by the State Public Defender Commission prohibits public defenders from taking on clients who had hired their own attorneys. In Boone County, a regulation prohibits public defenders from accepting new probation revocation cases in which a suspended execution of sentence had been imposed. In both cases, trial judges overruled the commission.
Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff expressed sympathy with the difficulty posed by shrinking budgets and growing caseloads.
“Now you can quibble about whether or not they drew the line in the right place,” Wolff stated, “but then the question is who gets to draw the line?”
Every judge asked questioned during the two cases, peppering lawyers on both sides of the issue with questions. Oral arguments were extended beyond the normal time limits as the judges wrestled with the constitutional rights of defendants to have proper legal representation in court and the very real budget constraints that have pushed the public defender system in Missouri into what many called a “caseload crisis”. The Public Defender Commission has failed to persuade the state legislature to increase its budget, a task made increasingly difficult with falling state revenue, and has adopted regulations to manage the caseload of public defenders.
Judge Patricia Breckenridge questions whether any such regulations are ever appropriate.
“Could a regulation ever be drawn to limit the cases, to draw a line somewhere and say the public defender doesn’t have to take these types of cases?” Breckinridge asked.
Chief Justice Ray Price questioned why the defendants in both cases weren’t represented before the court.
“I mean everybody’s fighting their own battles, but who’s looking out for them?” asked Price.
The two cases have been taken under advisement by the court. A decision will come later.