Appeals court says Missouri public defenders cannot refuse new cases
A Missouri appeals court ruled Tuesday that the state’s public defender system cannot decline to accept new cases because of its caseload crisis.
The opinion, from a three-judge panel in Kansas City, throws out a state regulation that allowed public defender offices to refuse cases until caseloads had declined to a more manageable level.
Public defender offices in Springfield, Jefferson City and Columbia have been declining some new cases. Offices in St. Joseph, Carthage, Caruthersville, Kennett and Troy were speaking with judges and prosecutors about doing the same thing.
Appeals judges ruled, however, that the state regulation allowing offices to limit their availability for new cases cannot trump a state law that mandates the appointment of lawyers to represent poor people accused of crimes.
Writing for the panel, Judge James Edward Welch said the court was sympathetic with caseload issues facing public defenders and the director of the public defender system.
“The director, however, cannot thwart his directive from the legislature to represent those persons specifically named in the statute by having the Public Defender Commission simply promulgate a rule that gives the director the authority to temporarily decline to do so,” Welch wrote.
Cat Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defender system, said the issue probably would go to the state Supreme Court for a final hearing. She said a bill currently under consideration in the Missouri General Assembly would give the commission the legal authority to decline cases when the load gets too heavy.
Kelly estimated Missouri would have to hire 192 public defenders over the next four years to properly manage its current caseload.
Missouri ranks 49th among U.S. states in per-capita spending on indigent defense. Offices in Kansas City and Liberty, which serve Jackson, Clay and Platte counties, have not stopped taking cases.
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