JEFFERSON CITY — The persistent struggle of overworked public defenders in the state was highlighted at a Missouri Supreme Court hearing Thursday, in the case of a Columbia attorney who failed to adequately represent several clients.
Karl Hinkebein, an attorney in the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office in Columbia, “failed to diligently represent” six clients and “failed to keep his clients reasonably informed about the status of their cases,” according to documents filed in the case. These shortcomings purportedly were the result of Hinkebein’s excessive caseload, exacerbated by chronic health problems.
The hearing took place within the larger context of a public defender system that is continuously underfunded and overextended.
On Sep. 4, 2014, Hinkebein was assigned an Employee Improvement Plan, and on July 26, 2016, a disciplinary panel held a hearing for Hinkebein’s case. The panel recommended one year of probation.
Possible consequences could be: reprimand, probation, suspension.
During her oral argument, Sara Rittman, Hinkebein’s attorney, said that it wasn’t until Hinkebein went to his first hearing about the matter that he discovered he had the largest caseload of anyone in his office. At the time, he was responsible for 110 cases.
Rittman’s brief said that the public defender’s office cannot turn down assignments. It also said that Hinkebein believed he would be fired for refusing a case. Most of Hinkebein’s work is with clients of low socioeconomic status in post-conviction relief cases.
Documents stated that Hinkebein also suffers from “chronic, severe health problems,” which reached critical condition and caused him to be hospitalized several times between 2010 and 2013. Rittman said that these issues affected him severely and persistently.
One of the main concerns raised by Alan Pratzel was the precedent that this case could set, not only for public defenders, but for all lawyers. On multiple occasions the judges questioned whether siding with Hinkebein would allow other lawyers to argue that failing to provide adequate counsel was the result of a large caseload.
Chief Justice Zel Fischer asked Rittman how Hinkebein’s situation is different from that of young associates at a law firm, who might feel pressured to do any work assigned to them or become expendable.
Judge Paul Wilson questioned whether it would be appropriate to suspend a lawyer who similarly neglected clients if he or she did not have the same health problems.
Rittman opened her oral argument stating that Hinkebein’s case took place within a “broken public defender system.” Rittman’s brief said that Area 67, the jurisdiction in which Hinkebein works, covers most of the state. Area 67 had an above-standard caseload for “46 of the 48 months” of the timeframe relevant to the case.
Rittman’s brief said that Hinkebein’s supervisor assigned him a heavier caseload because of his “work ethic and willingness to work.”
Pratzel argued that the issues with Hinkebein’s clients did not occur during any of the hospitalizations, but rather, in all except one case, months from them. Pratzel also said that the people Hinkebein represents are vulnerable.
The six cases in question were reassigned, and all of their motions for post-conviction relief were denied. Pratzel’s brief said that if any of their motions had ultimately been successful, Hinkebein’s inaction would have resulted in them being incarcerated for a longer period of time.
Judge Patricia Breckenridge asked what the benefit would be of suspending Hinkebein now, when he has had no more issues with his cases for about four years.
Judge Laura Denvir Stith said the justification for issuing a punishment would be to protect the public, but that may not be a concern anymore.
The state Supreme Court also raised the question of whether Hinkebein should be held responsible for his large caseload.