Missouri public defenders group takes appeal to high court

Friday, August 27, 2010 | 4:49 p.m. CDT; updated 9:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 30, 2010

SPRINGFIELD — The Missouri Public Defender Commission has asked the Missouri Supreme Court to decide whether public defender offices have the right to temporarily close when caseloads get too high.

A Christian County judge ruled in July that the Springfield office — which serves Green, Taney and Christian counties in southwest Missouri — had to represent a man who was charged with burglary and forgery even though the office had said it wouldn't take new clients.

The Springfield News-Leader reported that the commission appealed the judge's decision directly to the state Supreme Court because both sides believed any appellate ruling would be taken there, anyway.

The issue of overburdened public defender offices is nothing new, but the problem has become more acute as the number of indigent defendants has grown faster than state funding for the offices.

The state public defender's office received an additional $500,000 from the legislature this year, but Gov. Jay Nixon cut that in half because of budget restraints.

The remaining $250,000 was used to hire additional support staff to handle routine office tasks that public defenders had been forced to pick up because of the staffing crunch.

The Springfield office closed July 22 when it exceeded caseload limits set by the commission, which has said giving public defenders too many cases jeopardizes the quality of representation they can provide.

"It's an issue that's affecting more than just the Springfield office," said Cat Kelly, deputy director at the state public defender's office.

Springfield's office reopened Aug. 2 but closed again Aug. 17. More than a dozen other offices have issued notices of "impending unavailability," and two — in Springfield and Troy — have been certified by the state public defender's office as exceeding caseload limits.

Rod Hackathorn, head of the Springfield public defender's office, said several judges assigned new clients to the office after the Christian County order last month, ignoring the office's "notice of unavailability."

Kelly said that also has happened at the Troy office in Lincoln County.

The state Supreme Court hasn't decided whether to hear the appeal, which was filed Wednesday.

In its filing, the commission argued that the criminal justice system could be in danger if courts continue to assign cases to public defenders beyond caseload limits.

Beth Riggert, spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court, said she can't predict when the court will decide whether to take up the case.

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