The State Supreme Court has upheld the authority of the Public Defender Commission to manage the caseload of its staff, but has ruled it exceeded that authority in two cases.
In a 7-0 ruling, the State Supreme Court struck down efforts to manage caseloads in St. Francois and Boone County while still upholding the Public Defender Commission’s authority to decline cases when public defenders face caseloads too heavy to handle. The court heard the oral arguments on November 3rd. The Missouri Public Defender Commission had allowed public defenders in St. Francois County to decline representing anyone who had previously hired a private attorney, reasoning that private representation indicated the defendant wasn’t indigent. In Boone County, the commission had allowed public defenders to reject new probation revocation cases in which a suspended execution of sentence had been imposed.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the commission cannot make such exclusions; that once hiring a private attorney doesn’t necessary indicate a defendant isn’t indigent and that excluding categories of cases violates state law.
Public Defender Deputy Director Cat Kelly reacted to the ruling in an interview with the Missourinet.
“If we can’t exclude categories of cases, but we do still have the authority to say we’re full now we can’t take anything else, you could conceivably run into the situation where we have taken everything as it comes in, including a number of minor cases, and then find ourselves full and the serious cases, the one right outside the door, that we say we can’t take,” said Kelly.
Kelly said the Public Defender Commission will have to re-evaluate its rules in light of the Supreme Court decision.
Even with the ruling, the underlying problem, too many cases and too few public defenders, won’t be solved through commission rules.
“All of those are band-aid approaches,” Kelly said. “It’s simply an attempt to create some sort of safety valve in a system that has way too many cases for the lawyers to handle it.”
Kelly says that, ultimately, the legislature must address the problem. It either must provide more money to hire more public defenders or adjust laws to reduce the number of crimes punishable by prison time.
Brent Martin reports.