Supreme Court must stanch public defender meltdown
A new study of Missouri’s public defender system — which provides lawyers for indigent defendants in criminal cases — says the system’s lawyers are so underpaid, overworked and badly supervised that they’re like the pilots of the commuter plane that crashed into a Buffalo, N.Y., suburb in February.
As a result, says the Spangenberg Group, a judicial consulting firm, and George Mason University’s Center for Justice, Law and Society, Missouri’s criminal justice system “is heading for disaster, one which is both predictable and preventable.”
Missouri’s public defender system “stands at the bottom of its sister states in terms of resources,” the report concludes, and “has reached a point where what it provides is often nothing more than the illusion of a lawyer.”
None of this is news, at least not to anyone familiar with the state’s criminal justice system. The Missouri Bar commissioned a similar study four years ago, and it reached similar conclusions.
Since then, a special committee of the Missouri Senate has recommended that public defenders’ case loads be reduced, that staff support for the system be increased and that more lawyers be hired. No money was appropriated for any of this.
So the Public Defender Commission sought the authority to limit the number of cases its lawyers are required to handle. Lawmakers were sympathetic to the approach and, earlier this year, enacted legislation that would have granted this authority.
Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill. He acknowledged that the public defender system “is operating under significant stresses” and said he was committed to working with the Legislature “to identify additional resources.”
That hasn’t worked out very well. Missouri public defenders were set to receive $2 million in federal stimulus funds. Mr. Nixon’s budget office cut that to $500,000 earlier this month.
Times are tough. Many deserving divisions of government have experienced cuts. But even when times were good, Missouri failed to provide basic funding for public defenders. Now it faces a crisis of constitutional dimension: Missouri may be violating Sixth Amendment guarantees that indigent defendants have the right to counsel and the right to a speedy trial.
As we noted in July, if Missouri’s public defenders “are pushed to handle case loads so large that they can’t provide clients with adequate representation, they must turn down cases…. They have no alternative.”
That time is at hand.
Mr. Nixon has expressed sympathy for crime victims who must wait for justice if public defenders’ case loads are capped. His concern is understandable. But responsibility for any such delays belong to the governor and the Legislature. It’s their duty to fund the criminal justice system adequately.
On Nov. 3, the Missouri Supreme Court will be asked to decide whether the Missouri Public Defender Commission has the authority to set case load limits under existing law, even without the kind of legislation Mr. Nixon vetoed.
The Supreme Court is the final authority on Missouri lawyers’ professional responsibility. Thus, if the commission is found to lack the power to manage case loads adequately, the court could step in and set its own rule.
The court should do so — upholding basic due process by ensuring that public defenders don’t have so many cases that they can’t fulfill their professional responsibilities. Inevitably, that will result in a court challenge of Missouri’s failure to fulfill its own responsibilities. That may be what it takes.