The head of the state public defender's office in Kansas City testified Thursday that public defenders labor under excessive caseloads and are unable to fulfill their ethical obligations to their clients.
During a nearly 12-hour-long proceeding in Jackson County Circuit Court, Ruth Petsch, who oversees the biggest public defender office in Missouri, occasionally broke down in tears as she discussed the pressures her attorneys face because of what she described as unmanageable caseloads.
“I’ve had people come to my office and need immediate mental health leave, some considering self-harm,” she said. “We come here with a goal to help people no one else is helping. When we can’t do it, it’s crushing.”
In earlier proceedings in 2017, then-presiding Judge John Torrence denied Petsch’s requests to remedy the situation, questioning whether her office's problems weren’t self-inflicted. But last summer, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled Torrence should have held a formal hearing on the record and sent the case back. Torrence recused himself and the case is now in the hands of presiding Judge David Byrn.
Petsch said her public defenders' caseloads put them at risk of violating rules of professional conduct. She said the stress has caused high turnover each year, worsening the office's caseload problem because new attorneys can’t be assigned as many cases. Petsch said nearly 1,000 defendants eligible for public defender representation are currently on her office's “postponement list.”
“My attorneys are ticking time bombs,” she said.
Public defender Walter Stokely testified he was concerned about losing his bar license over the compromised services he said he's forced to provide his clients. He tried eight jury cases in the last year, he said, and the only way he can manage the load is by "putting out whatever fire is burning hottest at the time."
His colleague, David Wiegert, testified he has clients he’s never spoken to, and calls and voice messages he has not had the time to return.
“I used to find a small source of pride in the martyr-like aspects of being a public defender,” Wiegert told Byrn. “There have been gaps and holes in my practice — I thought that’s what it meant to be a public defender: trying to get a good result by wild chance.”
Now, Wiegert said, he realizes it was at the expense of his clients and their families.
“People are being trampled on,” he said.
Byrn seemed skeptical during the course of the proceeding, saying the statistics didn't back up the attorneys' claims.
He noted that Kansas City's public defenders closed 8,500 cases in fiscal 2008 while closing just 3,552 cases last fiscal year — even though the office had about the same number of attorneys both years. He also said the cases assigned to the office had decreased by 63 percent over that 10-year span.
He also noted that there are 15 fewer public defenders in St. Louis County for a population that's 30 percent greater. Petsch countered that St. Louis County processes far fewer felony cases, which require more time.
Petsch proposed that Byrn set a maximum caseload for her office, citing a 2014 study about Missouri’s Public Defender System by the American Bar Association. The study sets out workload standards for attorneys, broken down by hours and case types.
The project director of that study, Stephen Hanlon, urged Byrn to listen to the "professional judgement" of Petsch, a 21-year veteran of the public defender's office.
“Significant risk of substantial harm. That’s what we have here,” said Hanlon, who is general counsel for the National Association for Public Defense.
Petsch asked for more overload funding and a court-ordered waitlist that would prioritize cases according to type and whether a client is in jail.
Her office currently requires "vertical representation" of clients, meaning it assigns clients a single attorney from the beginning to end of a case. Byrn suggested that, at least in some instances, "horizontal representation" — or having different attorneys represents clients at different stages of a case — would be more efficient.
Washington University law professor Peter Joy called that system unethical, comparing it to sending a car down an assembly line and only putting on a hubcap.
Former public defender Leon Munday, who spent nearly 30 years in the Kansas City office, testified that horizontal representation left little time for investigations or witness interviews.
“You have a responsibility beyond the statute to the clients," he told Byrn. "I don’t think your powers are limited. Clients rights are being violated."
Separate from the case before Byrn, a deal is pending that would set maximum caseloads for the state’s 500-plus public defenders. The deal would settle a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2017 alleging that Missouri’s public defenders face an “urgent constitutional crisis.” The deal, announced a few weeks ago, is opposed by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who says it would allow “untold numbers of felons” to go free.
Unless a federal judge approves the settlement, that case is set to go to trial in August.