The state Public Defender’s Office in Kansas City, the largest in Missouri, will have another chance to argue that its caseloads have become unmanageable.
On Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that the presiding judge of Jackson County wrongly refused to hold a formal hearing on the issue. It sent the matter back to the judge and directed him to create a record that can be reviewed on appeal.
It was the latest development in an ongoing debate over whether the Missouri public defender system, among the most underfunded in the nation, is within its rights to stop taking on additional cases because its lawyers are overburdened.
At issue is a law enacted by the Missouri Legislature in 2013 that blocks public defender offices from refusing new cases. Tuesday’s ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals was one of two cases before the court that challenged the law.
The other one, in the St. Louis branch of the appeals court, is the mirror image of the one in Kansas City: It was brought by the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s office and seeks to overturn a judge’s decision to grant relief to the public defender’s office there.
The two cases set the stage for a possible showdown in the Missouri Supreme Court. If the two appeals court branches reach opposite outcomes, the issue will have to be resolved by the high court.
The chronically underfunded Missouri public defender system has been straining to keep up with growing caseloads. The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision last year to suspend a veteran public defender who had been handling a large caseload and was hospitalized due to chronic health problems only exacerbated the problem.
Many public defender offices throughout the state, fearful that their overworked attorneys might be punished for not keeping up with their caseloads, refused to take on additional clients.
That’s what happened last November when the head of the Kansas City public defender’s office, Ruth Petsch, asked to discuss caseload issues with Presiding Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrance. The 2013 law permits such requests under certain conditions, but Torrance said her motion was not filed in good faith and denied it.
He denied a second motion Petsch filed the following week because it did not identify the individual public defenders whose caseloads she wanted to discuss, which is required by the statute.
A month later, Petsch filed a third request, this time naming two public defenders but also laying out the caseload numbers for all 35 attorneys in her office. It also asked Torrance to assign cases to private attorneys; place others on a waiting list for public defender services; and find the 2013 law unconstitutional insofar as it requires public defenders to accept cases for which they lack the time and resources to provide effective assistance of counsel and puts them at risk of being punished.
Torrance, a former public defender himself, denied that request too, questioning whether the office’s problems weren’t self-inflicted and brought on by “inefficient policies.” The Jackson County prosecutor’s office had opposed the motion as not meeting the law’s requirements.
In its ruling Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals said Torrance should have granted Petsch’s request for a hearing on the record because without one, the appeals court can’t determine whether Torrance’s denial was appropriate.
Petsch declined to comment because the matter remains in litigation.
Mike Mansur, a spokesman for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, said the prosecutor’s office would abide by the decision and “seek to make a full record on the issue before the circuit judge handling the matter.”
The Kansas City public defender office is one of several across the state that insist they can’t take on more cases without jeopardizing the right to counsel of their current clients.
The state’s 370 public defenders handle more than 80,000 criminal cases a year for indigent clients – an average of 216 cases per attorney. Studies that have examined the Missouri public defender system say it should have nearly twice as many lawyers to meet standards set by the American Bar Association for the minimal time needed to adequately represent clients.
Last year, the ACLU’s Missouri chapter filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to force the Legislature to adequately fund the system. The case is scheduled to go to trial in October.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies