The state supreme court is looking at one of our greatest constitutional rights that has become a collision between judges and lawyers who represent poor people. The case is a test of whether public defender offices can refuse to accept more clients if they already have too many of them.

The issue comes down to this:

We are guaranteed the right of a speedy and a fair trial. We are guaranteed access to an effective lawyer. If we can’t afford to hire one the court must appoint a public defender for us.

But suppose that public defender is so busy that he or she cannot effectively defend us. Lawyers licenses can be taken away if they don’t providfe effective counsel or if their work for one client endangers representation for another.

Most of the district public defender offices either are certified as too busy to take more clients or on the verge of being certified. Lawyer Stephen Hanlon tells the Supreme Court an overloaded public defender system must limit its caseload if it is to providfe competent asistance to its clients.

But Christian County lawyer Donovan Dobbs says a judge in his county carried out his constitutional responsibilities by ordering an overworked public defender to represent a client. He says adequate representation is secondary to representation. “They’re asking that the public defender system be allowed to dictate to the local trial court,” he says.

The public defender system has asked the legislature for money to hire more lawyers for years with little response.

A ruling on constitutional protections and the way professional obligations plug into them and what they could mean to any of us or someone we know is not expected until next year.

Audio: Listen to arguments before court 1;12:40