Missouri Supreme Court hears case on public defender caseloads

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 | 12:01 p.m. CST; updated 11:43 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court might soon determine whether the state’s public defender system can set its own regulations to limit bulging caseloads.

The state high court heard a Boone County case Tuesday that began last year. The Boone County public defender’s office filed a lawsuit against 13th Circuit Court Judges Gene Hamilton and Gary Oxenhandler for appointing the office to take two cases it had rejected.

Across the state, public defenders say their offices are understaffed, underfunded and overloaded with cases, which has forced some to develop methods to limit the number of incoming cases.

In October 2008, the Boone County public defender’s office implemented a rule to reject probation violation cases in which a suspended execution of sentence was imposed. In these cases, a judge gives the defendant probation instead of a jail sentence.

The decision to implement the rule came after the Missouri State Public Defender Commission determined that the Boone County office had exceeded its caseload.

The next month, former District Defender Kevin O’Brien received applications for two cases that were excluded under his office’s new regulations. When O’Brien filed notices that said the office couldn’t take the cases, Hamilton and Oxenhandler still appointed defenders.

Missouri law is unclear whether trial courts have the authority to override public defender offices' regulations to control growing caseloads.

State law requires public defenders to represent defendants who cannot afford their own legal counsel. But the state public defender commission argues that it is legally responsible for limiting its caseload to ensure representation meets constitutional standards.

Kansas City lawyer Antwaun Smith, who is representing the public defenders, said caseload limits prevent other potential problems, such as lawsuits for inadequate counsel.

“The public defender is to provide quality representation to criminal defendants who can’t afford it,” Smith said in an interview. “If you have too many cases, you can’t provide quality and competent representation.”

Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Morrell, who represented Hamilton and Oxenhandler before the state high court, argued that the decision by the Boone County public defender’s office to exclude those types of cases could leave defendants charged with serious offenses without representation.

Beth Riggert, a spokeswoman for the state high court, said it is hard to predict when the court will make a ruling on the case, and that it could take months to reach a decision.

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