Judge says public defenders must represent client

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | 11:37 a.m. CDT; updated 11:50 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

OZARK — Although Jared Blacksher was the one accused of a crime, there wasn't a single mention of the circumstances of his burglary charge during a nearly three-hour Christian County court hearing on Tuesday.

Blacksher, 22, sat silent, speaking only when asked how he was doing. Both sides debated who should represent him, but the question was about more than one defendant's right to an attorney.

Attention in the courtroom was focused instead on the first of what may be many court cases surrounding the Missouri State Public Defender's Office, which says it has reached its limits.

The State Public Defender's Office says it was given authority to work toward lowering its caseload and set up a system of closing offices when caseloads get too high. The prosecution on Tuesday argued that the public defender's office system of denying clients representation violates constitutional rights.

Judge John Waters upheld his ruling, made last week, that the public defender's office must represent Blacksher.

Blacksher was among defendants charged during the closure period of the District 31 public defender's office — which serves Christian, Greene and Taney counties — at the end of July. Although he qualifies as an indigent defendant, meaning he lacks the money to pay an attorney, the public defender's office notified the court that it was unable to take his case.

The District 31 office announced late last month that it would be closed to new clients when it reaches a maximum number of cases every month.

Since the District 31 announcement, several other state public defender's offices have followed suit, igniting a statewide debate.

Christian County Assistant Prosecutor Ben Miller pointed to the legally binding responsibilities of the parties in this case.

"You have two shalls. You shall appoint," Miller said to the judge. Then he turned to the public defenders. "And they shall defend."

Eligibility was argued frequently throughout the hearing.

Missouri State Public Defender's Office Deputy Director Dan Gralike argued that Blacksher wasn't eligible because the system couldn't handle another case.

Chief Assistant Prosecutor Donovan Dobbs argued that Blacksher is eligible for services by the system's own rules.

"The public defenders system has no right, reason or ability to reject this case," Dobbs said.

During a July 28 hearing, Waters denied the public defender's motion to refuse to represent Blacksher.

On Tuesday, a team of public defenders from across the state tried to convince Waters that they shouldn't have to take the case.

He wasn't convinced.

"They have no remedy," Waters said of defendants who don't have the money to hire an attorney. Later, he added: "That flies in the face of our system."

He upheld his original ruling and ordered that a public defender be appointed to represent Blacksher.

"Jared, we're going to get you on with your life here," Waters told Blacksher after ordering a public defender.

He said he wasn't ruling on whether the public defender system is overworked or not, but whether he could allow a defendant who qualifies for a public defender to go without.

"It's a horrible situation, gentlemen. I'm not criticizing anyone in this," Waters said.

Peter Sterling, general counsel for the State Public Defender's Office, said the office intends to appeal the decision all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court if necessary.

Sterling was the first witness brought by Gralike to outline the protocol the office had set up in light of a previous Missouri Supreme Court decision.

The ruling came in 2009 after some public defender offices were denying certain types of cases in an effort to reduce caseloads. That system was ruled unconstitutional.

Gralike said that case acknowledged the authority of the State Public Defender's Office to set up other ways to take fewer cases.

Miller and Dobbs said the rules of an organization cannot trump a constitutional right.

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Russell Perkins August 11, 2010 | 1:16 p.m.

"reduce caseloads" I'm pretty sure that's far beyond the control of attorney. The only way to lower caseloads is to have less criminals.

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John Schultz August 11, 2010 | 1:30 p.m.

Or the state can pay more to hire additional attorneys. Seems the courts have ruled that one has a right to a lawyer under the Fifth Amendment.

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