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."