A federal appeals court has thrown out a class action lawsuit against Missouri and its governor that seeks to fix the state’s chronically underfunded and overworked public defender system.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that both the state and governor are immune from the suit on sovereign immunity grounds.
Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that says the state cannot commit a legal wrong and therefore can't be sued unless the legislature carves out exceptions.
Filed in March 2017, the lawsuit alleges the state, by failing to adequately fund and staff the public defender system, has not met its constitutional obligation to provide indigent defendants with meaningful legal representation.
The lawsuit, which describes the situation as “an urgent constitutional crisis,” was brought on behalf of indigent defendants by the ACLU-Missouri. The only state that spends less than the $355 per case Missouri allocates to its indigent defense budget is Mississippi, according to the suit.
The 8th Circuit’s decision, written by Judge Duane Benton, does not address the merits of the suit. Rather, it finds that the state and governor can’t be sued for the sort of “equitable” relief sought by the ACLU.
The decision does not end the suit, which continues against five other defendants: the head of the public defender system, Michael Barrett, and the members of the public defender commission. But the ruling knocks out the possibility of forcing the legislature to appropriate more money for the system.
“It would be easier if the state itself were a defendant,” acknowledged Tony Rothert, legal director of ACLU-Missouri.
But Rothert said if the case goes to trial and the ACLU prevails against the other defendants, the court could order them to reduce public defenders’ caseloads. Or, Rothert said, prosecutors could use their discretion to not bring charges for crimes like marijuana possession. Or non-dangerous defendants could be let out on bail and put on a waiting list for public defenders rather than languishing in jail while awaiting trial.
“So there are numerous ways to solve this problem,” Rothert said. “The easiest way, I think, was to give more money so the defender's office could hire more lawyers. But there are other ways that might even be better for justice overall.”
The lawsuit seeks class-action status to cover all indigent defendants in Missouri who are charged with crimes that carry prison sentences. Missouri's public defenders typically handle 80,000 cases a year, so the potential class could number in the tens of thousands of individuals.
As of the time the lawsuit was filed nearly two years ago, Missouri had just 370 public defenders statewide. Studies that have evaluated Missouri’s public defender system say it should have nearly twice that many public defenders to meet standards set by the American Bar Association for adequate representation of clients.
If anything, the system’s problems have gotten worse since the lawsuit was filed. In St. Louis County, a court has allowed public defenders to limit their caseloads. In Boone County, nonviolent defendants are being released from jail and put on a waiting list for public defenders.
Kansas City’s 35 public defenders sought to refuse new cases, but a Jackson County judge, a former public defender himself, refused to allow them to do so. Last June, the Missouri Court of Appeals gave the Kansas City office, the biggest public defender office in the state, another shot at proving that its caseloads have become unmanageable.
“Our constitutional crisis in the public defender system has become only worse while Missouri officials drag this case on in court,” Rothert said in a statement just after the 8th Circuit issued its decision.
“Missourians languish in jails because they do not have adequate legal representation the state is required to provide. We are pleased this procedural issue has been decided so that the case can finally move to a resolution that will restore Sixth Amendment rights to the people of Missouri.”
Rothert said the case is ready to go to trial and he expects that to happen soon. Originally filed in state court and removed to federal court, the case would be tried before U.S. District Judge Nanette Loughrey in Jefferson City.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.