Missouri chief justice claims successes despite controversies

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | 7:18 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Laura Denvir Stith, chief justice on the Missouri Supreme Court, is nearing the end of a two-year term that has been marked by a crisis in public defender funding and controversy regarding Missouri's method of selecting judges.

But Stith sees success through what she acknowledges has been a challenging time.

In an interview Wednesday with several media outlets, she took particular pride in raising awareness about the plight of Missouri's overbooked public defenders. She also reiterated her defense of the state's judicial nominating process against those seeking to give greater control to the governor.

Stith's term as chief justice ends July 1, when Judge William Ray Price Jr. is to take over. The post rotates every two years among the seven members of the Missouri Supreme Court, of which Stith will remain a part.

When she became chief justice in July 2007, Stith pledged to try to make the courts more accessible to the poor.

She cites as accomplishments new legal forms and educational programs allowing people to more easily represent themselves in civil cases such as divorces, and changes that allow legal aid offices to provide a few hours of help to people without taking on their entire cases.

But during the past two years, some indigent criminal defendants have found it increasingly difficult to get free attorneys.

Public defender offices in Columbia, Jefferson City and Springfield have turned away clients because of heavy caseloads. A state appeals court halted that earlier this year, striking down a regulation that had allowed public defenders with high caseloads to opt out of cases.

Stith urged lawmakers to act, warning that some criminal defendants could end up going free because they had to wait too long for a trial.

Lawmakers responded by passing a bill that would free public defenders from having to represent people when prosecutors are not seeking jail time. The bill, pending Gov. Jay Nixon's approval, also would let the Public Defender Commission set caseload limits and allow defendants to be put on a waiting list when those levels are exceeded. The state legislature also provided a $2 million boost — using federal stimulus funds — to the $37 million budget for the public defender system.

"Two million dollars may not be a lot in the scheme of the entire budget of the state or even of the public defender system, but it is enough to hire dozens and dozens of lawyers to handle hundreds and thousands of cases that they could not have otherwise handled," Stith said.

Two years ago, people still had to be persuaded that there was a crisis, she said.

"I hope we've gotten it from a crisis to a serious problem that we can deal with in the next few years."

Stith, 55, of Kansas City served on Missouri's Western District Court of Appeals before being appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2001 under Missouri's nonpartisan court plan. A commission consisting of three lawyers, three citizens and a judge screens applicants and submits three finalists to the governor, who then picks one.

As chief justice, Stith was thrust into the unexpected role of chief defender for the process against criticism from then-Gov. Matt Blunt and other Republicans. They complained the process was too secretive, too influenced by plaintiffs' attorneys and too often resulted in nominees who weren't as conservative as Blunt desired.

Stith made public the applications of the three finalists and posted notices of the commission's meeting times and locations, though the meetings themselves remained closed.

But Stith on Wednesday remained skeptical of other changes proposed by lawmakers that would increase the number of nominees submitted to the governor, allow the governor to reject a slate of candidates and receive a new one, and expand the number of gubernatorial-appointed citizens on the nominating commission. She said the proposals likely would make Missouri's judicial selection process more political.

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