Court: Public defenders with big caseloads can't turn away cases

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:44 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This article has been modified to reflect that Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, was the sponsor of legislation to allow the state's public defender system to regulate how many cases and office would handle in a year. A previous version of the article misidentified the bill's sponsor.

COLUMBIA – The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, decided Tuesday that the Boone County Public Defender Office cannot refuse to represent defendants in certain cases. The ruling is the latest chapter in the office's continuing struggle to handle an overwhelming number of cases with a limited staff.

The appeals court ruled that the defenders are required under state law to provide legal counsel to any person who requests it, reversing an earlier decision that granted the defenders the right to refuse certain cases. In its opinion, the court wrote that while it understands the "serious issues" facing the office, it was obligated to uphold state law.

"The court wasn’t unsympathetic to the problems facing the public defenders office, but they were bound by law to overturn their original decision," said J. Marty Robinson, director of the Missouri Public Defender System.

Robinson said he wasn't surprised by the court's decision and plans to appeal the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The volume of cases the defenders are required by law to handle is  jeopardizing their ability to provide defendants with adequate legal representation, Robinson said. In March, two of the office's most experienced lawyers — Assistant Public Defender Michael Byrne and District Defender Kevin O’Brien — left, adding to the workload of a staff already stretched thin.

In fiscal year 2008, the 11 public defenders in Boone County handled 4,489 of those cases, or more than 400 per defender, according to previous Missourian reports. In 2007, 12 defenders handled 372 cases each.  The state public defender commission determined in 1989 that as a general rule, the maximum number of cases a single public defender should handle in a year is 235, said Cathy Kelly, deputy director of the state public defender system.

To try to address the problem, Robinson notified Boone County Circuit Court in August that it would grant the local office "limited availability status." The new status, which it was given on Oct. 1, would have allowed the office the right to refuse to represent defendants in certain cases until it received enough staff to handled the caseload.

In November, Judges Gary Oxenhandler and Gene Hamilton ordered the office to represent Jacqueline A. Pickrell and Mark A. Lobdell at their probation violation hearings after the office objected to handling the case.

On December 8, the appeals court ruled in favor of the office and restrained Boone County judges from assigning the office new probation violation cases.

In July 2008, the state public defender system approved the "limited availability" policy for public defender offices that exceed maximum caseload capacity for three consecutive months. Robinson said the commission's decision was an attempt to address the problems within the office in a responsible way.

The problems facing the Boone County office are similar to those in other counties throughout the state. Kelly said that the Missouri has been overloaded with cases since 2000, when the state stopped hiring additional staff.  Since 2000, the number of cases the office has had to handle has risen exponentially, straining existing staff. In an attempt to fix the problem, the commission began reassigning staff to counties with a high case volume.

“It was like rearranging chairs on the Titanic,” Kelly said. “It didn’t matter what we did, everyone was going down.”

Robinson and other members of the commission were in Jefferson City on Tuesday lobbying legislators to pass a bill that would limit the number of cases public defenders would have to handle, allowing lawyers to investigate all of their cases thoroughly, Kelly said.

“Lawyers are picking and choosing which corners to cut, and that is against the law,” Kelly said. “You cant short-circuit some cases and investigate others.” 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon,* would allow the commission to determine the maximum number of cases a single lawyer could handle and provide legal protection for the limited availability status. Members of the commission think the bill could be a solution to the problem of overloaded offices. 

"The best solution is to fund and staff public defenders adequately so we never grant limited status," Robinson said. "Absent of that, someone needs to say we have reached our limit."

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Tom O'Sullivan April 15, 2009 | 8:14 a.m.

As I've said for the umpteenth time, this overload on the Public Defender is a result of its own poor resource management. They waste too much time and effort on the obviously guilty. I saw this firsthand a few weeks ago when I was called to jury duty. I wasn't selected to set in on the trial but it was a vintage Public Defender "dog and pony show" from the start. The cops catch some guy redhanded with the dope on him. The guy had a previous history for selling dope. The Public Defender tries to pull one of its patented stunts basically claiming the cops are all bunch of liars and they planted the dope on him. Again, these are the antics of an agency that continues to claim it doesn't have adequate resources. It's ridiculous!

(Report Comment)
Anton Berkovich April 15, 2009 | 9:21 a.m.

^Is this really the type of person we want serving on a jury?

(Report Comment)
Anton Berkovich April 15, 2009 | 9:22 a.m.

I really hope the lawyer in that particular case sees the 1st comment and gets the trial overturned.

(Report Comment)
Mark Flett April 15, 2009 | 9:49 a.m.

I want to applaud Mr. O' Sullivan for speaking out the truth regarding repeat offenders. Approximately 8 years ago I was chosen for Jury Duty in Boone County on a stolen car case. The defendent was charged with stealing a car and the public defender entered a Not Guilty Plea. During the trial the defendent explained a "friend" had drove up in the parking lot of his apartment located just east of Joe Machens Ford. The defendent indicated his friend wanted him to drive the car to a convenient store in Booneville to drop it off. No Problem? When he was arrested in Booneville at the convenient store the drivers side window was busted out and the driver was sitting on the glass. Further more the steering column was broken and the ingition was torn out so the car was running with no key? Now I might not be the sharpest tool in the shed BUT, if a "friend" of mine pulled up in my drive and asked me to drive such a car, I think common sense would lead me to believe something was wrong. By the way, I was also chosen to be Jury Foreman and as much as I thought the man was guilty, he was set free from this case. I was appauled, until, while being escorted from the Court House to accross the street, the baliff told me he was up for 8 more counts???? I do hope the Attorneys and Judges read my comments and Thank You Tom for speaking out.

(Report Comment)
Chad Hunter April 15, 2009 | 10:44 a.m.

tom--sometimes it is the prosecutor being obnoxious and unreasonable that causes a jury trial like that. sometimes a dishonest cop can cause it too. honestly. if you want, i can post several articles showing that.
i think if you look at individual offices with caseload comparison you could find where resources are misallocated. and a lot of the attorneys that are there feel like they are working a 40 hour per week job. that is ridiculous with the salaries they are paid. with the benefits and all of those state holidays. one office near here has attorneys showing up for court after 9. and leave every day around 430. and folks in town notice it when the attorney has not even read the file before court. those attorneys could help out boone county.

(Report Comment)
travis jacobs April 15, 2009 | 12:41 p.m.


What you fail to mention is that you are a high ranking member of the Boone County Sheriff's Department...As a former Boone County public defender, current defense attorney in town, and friend of yours, I respect the job you do. However, you seem to ignore that public defenders have a job to do as well.

That job is to defend their clients. To do this, they present their clients side of the story as told to them. Just because that side of the story does not jibe with the cops side of the story does not automatically make it incorrect. That is the job of the jury to decide who is telling the truth, not the public defender handling the case. Your comments about pre-conceived notions of guilt are a classic example of why law enforcement officials are routinely struck from the jury by attorneys on the case.

Public Defender's are a vital cog in the criminal court system. In fact, public defenders handle approximately 75% of the criminal cases here in Boone County. They are severely underfunded. Your comments reflecting the defense of a client by the public defender as "antics" and "dog and pony show" are an opinion you are certainly entitled to have, but in my opinion your references only serve to degrade the tough job public defenders have to do.

Additionally, the Constitution of the United States requires adequate representation of a criminal defendant. If public defenders were to "not waste too much time and effort on the obviously guilty" as you advocate, by failing to investigate their clients version of the events and defending their clients to the fullest, then those convicted of crimes could have their convictions overturned by the appeals court. This would force another trial, and add further costs and stresses to an already taxed system.

Finally, I will point out that any funding for the public defenders comes from the state legislature. Whereas funding for law enforcement comes from local municipalities, state legislatures, and federal grants. Additionally, law enforcement is able to draw on money seized from crimes and any donations or fundraiser from the community.
Quite a discrepancy in funding avenues. Maybe public defenders are in a funding crisis after all, rather than mismanaging their money as you suggest.

I look forward to debating you in person next time I see you.

(Report Comment)
Tom O'Sullivan April 15, 2009 | 1:21 p.m.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my initial comments. TPO

(Report Comment)

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