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Federal Judge Refuses To Approve Deal Reducing Missouri Public Defender Workloads

Rich Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Numerous studies have concluded that Missouri's public defender system is chronically overworked and underfunded.

A federal judge has refused to sign off on a deal that would cap the number of cases Missouri’s public defenders are allowed to handle.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey on Monday found that the proposed consent judgment between the ACLU of Missouri and the state’s public defender system was essentially unworkable.

The agreement, reached in May, set maximum caseloads for the state’s public defenders, limiting their hours to no more than 173.3 per month.

But Laughrey said that judges, who were not parties to the case, were not bound by the agreement. That meant, she said, that they could assign cases to public defenders, who would be forced to choose between violating the consent decree or being subject to contempt of court.

“Viewed from this enforcement perspective, the proposed consent decree appears illusory because the (Missouri public defender system) is caught between conflicting judicial decrees and there is no practical remedy,” Laughrey wrote.

The consent decree would have resolved a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in March 2017 alleging the state’s public defender system is chronically underfunded and understaffed.

As a result, the ACLU contended, Missouri has not met its constitutional obligation to provide poor defendants with meaningful legal representation.

Numerous studies of Missouri’s public defender system dating back to 1993 have concluded that it is stretched beyond capacity.

In addition to limiting public defenders’ caseloads, the proposed settlement would have established new standards for attorney performance, such as mandating that public defenders aggressively challenge the government’s case before trial.

An outside monitor would have been placed in charge of ensuring that all public defender offices met the new standards.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt opposed the settlement, arguing it would have allowed “untold numbers of alleged felons to avoid criminal prosecution.”

Laughrey, however, denied Schmitt’s motion to intervene in the case and said she would have rejected the consent decree even if she’d rejected Schmitt’s arguments.

“The Court is sympathetic to the difficult position the (Missouri public defender system) and its attorneys are in,” Laughrey wrote at the conclusion of her 12-page ruling.

“Nonetheless, the proposed consent decree is not the vehicle to ensure that the (Missouri public defender system) and the State of Missouri meet their legal obligation to provide constitutionally adequate representation to indigent defendants.”

ACLU officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The public defender system this year has requested funding of $61 million, less than 1% of the state’s budget. The request compares with the current public defender budget of $51 million.

Just last week, Missouri Chief Justice George Draper urged the legislature to properly fund the public defender system. 

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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