Missouri's Broken Public Defender System Gets Kicked to Supreme Court (Again)

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St. Louis County Circuit Court. - IMAGE VIA FLICKR/AUVET
St. Louis County's public defenders are buckling under heavy caseloads, but a new opinion from an appeals court may undercut the court-ordered reforms established earlier this year to aid the overworked attorneys.

The latest development also means that Missouri's beleaguered public defender system is set for yet another reckoning in the state Supreme Court.

For years, studies and critics have warned that the state's public defender system is teetering on the edge of crisis. Some Missouri courts have essentially deputized private attorneys to work pro bono, while others have simply ordered public defenders to take new cases no matter the consequences.

But in March, a St. Louis County judge acknowledged the extent of the problem. In a ruling, Circuit Judge Douglas Beach determined that sixteen of the district's twenty public defenders had provided sufficient evidence to claim their caseloads made them "unable to provide effective assistance of counsel."



The ruling followed efforts from the district's head public defender, Stephen Reynolds, to invoke the 2013 state law that gives public defenders the ability to petition the court if they believe their caseloads will make it impossible to represent new clients ethically.

In his March ruling, Judge Beach ordered a number of remedies, which included setting a maximum "designated number" of cases that could be assigned to a given public defender and focusing attorney resources on defendants languishing in jail.

But the order was challenged by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. And on Wednesday, Judge James Dowd of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals authored a 3-0 opinion sending the matter to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The appellate decision hinges on the legality of how Judge Beach handled the public defenders' petition. Although the state statute is "murky and ambiguous," Dowd wrote, Beach had erred in judging the case under the rules of civil litigation instead of handling it through the court's administrative functions.

Under most circumstances, Dowd wrote, the appellate court's ruling would order the case back to the trial court. However, given the case's "general interest and importance," the judges deemed the matter worthy of scrutiny in state's highest court.

The appellate decision doesn't address Beach's conclusions about the struggling public defenders — indeed, in terms of indigent defense funding, Missouri is among the very worst in the nation, with a problem established in both recent lawsuits and studies that go back decades.

And this won't be the first time the state's Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in on the public defender system. In 2012, the justices handed the state's public defenders a victory, ruling that a district could legally refuse cases if its caseload exceeded a designated limit for three consecutive months. One year later, the legislature later passed a new law stating that only judges could decide when a public defender had sufficient reason to reject cases.

For public defenders, the situation has an added source of tension: They can be punished, and even held in contempt of court, if they fail to adequately represent clients. In 2017, the Missouri Supreme Court disciplined a Columbia public defender for doing just that, even though he'd been hospitalized due to chronic health problems.

At the time, Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri public defender system, told St. Louis Public Radio that the situation put the system's attorneys in an impossible bind. He compared it to having two guns pointed at your head, one from the Supreme Court, the other from a local court.

"That's our world right now," Barrett said. 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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