Public defenders throughout Missouri have more than a passing interest in a couple of cases being considered by the State Supreme Court.
In the two cases, the Supreme Court is deciding whether the Public Defender Commission can create regulations excluding certain cases from its services in an effort to manage the caseload of state public defenders. Public Defender Deputy Director Cat Kelly says the commission seeks to restrict cases that fit the jurisdiction, such as the rule excluding probation revocation cases in Boone County.
“If it’s a jurisdiction where there aren’t many probation revocation cases, getting out of those cases isn’t really going to provide much caseload relief to lawyers so that may not be the selection there,” Kelly says.
In a case from St. Francois County, the public defender refused to represent a defendant who had previously hired a private attorney. The attorney was paid $9,000, but quit representing the individual when he sought a jury trial.
Kelly won’t try to guess the outcome of the cases based on the judge’s questions during oral argument.
“But I think it was clear from the questions the judges are struggling with the same issue that the trial judges, that the public defender has been struggling with for a long time,” says Kelly. “The problem is clear. What is the solution? There are no good solutions.”
The Public Defender Commission has requested more money from the legislature so that it can hire more lawyers to handle a staggering caseload. A special legislative committee considered options in 2006. The General Assembly approved a bill this year that would have allowed the Public Defender Commission to set maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists. Misdemeanor would be allowed to move through the system without a public defender if the prosecutor wasn’t seeking incarceration. Governor Nixon vetoed the bill.
Kelly argues that public defenders need relief as well as protection. She points out public defenders are in a more vulnerable position than others in the judicial system.
“Our lawyers have their license on the line every single day. They have no official immunity, unlike judges, unlike prosecutors. They have no official immunity,” Kelly says. “They are personally liable for malpractice, for not doing on every one of these cases what should be done.”
She says the commission’s regulations attempt to solve the problem. Public defenders in Missouri handle as many as 300 cases at a time, twice the maximum recommended by a judicial study.