JEFFERSON CITY | State public defenders who contend that excessive caseloads compromise their ability to represent their clients urged the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday to allow them to reject requests to represent some defendants.
The Public Defender Commission has adopted rules allowing overburdened public defenders to reject clients who have previously hired a lawyer and in certain other cases. The policies are designed to relieve public defenders whose caseloads far exceed professional standards.
A U.S. Department of Justice standard recommends a maximum annual caseload of about 150 felonies per defender, depending on factors including complexity and attorney experience. Cat Kelly, a state public defender deputy director, said Missouri defenders on average handle about 300 every year.
Prosecutors from central and eastern Missouri who are challenging the rules contend that the public defender system must represent criminal defendants who face time behind bars but cannot afford to hire lawyers.
The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday arising from two cases in which public defenders declined to represent defendants after being assigned to the case by trial judges.
In one case, a St. Francois County judge ordered a public defender to represent Steven Roloff, who was charged in 2007 with felony assault and abuse of a child. Roloff’s private attorney had withdrawn from the case shortly before a November 2008 trial.
The Public Defender Commission is challenging the assignment because of its rule that defendants who had hired a private attorney are not eligible for a public defender unless granted an exception.
In the other case, Boone County judges attempted to appoint public defenders to represent two people accused of violating probation. The public defenders’ office invoked a rule allowing them to refuse to represent defendants in certain probation cases.
A state appeals court ruled in April that public defenders could not refuse the probation cases, and that decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Patrick King, the assistant prosecutor for St. Francois County, argued Tuesday that the public defenders’ restrictions for taking new cases conflicts with their duties and should not be enforced, and that judges can appoint lawyers to represent defendants.
“This regulation acts to refuse representation of otherwise eligible people, of otherwise indigent persons,” King said.
Daniel Gralike, a public defender deputy director, argued the commission is allowed to manage the public defender system and set up rules for appointing lawyers.
The problems with Missouri’s public defender system are not new. A special legislative committee studied the issue in 2006. Earlier this year, legislation was approved allowing the Public Defender Commission to set up maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists to be assigned a lawyer. It also would have allowed trials to proceed for misdemeanor offenses without a public defender if prosecutors are not pursuing any jail time.
But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, saying it could have shifted more work to courts and prosecutors and burdened defendants and crime victims.
Kelly said in an interview after Tuesday’s hearings that there are too many cases and too few lawyers.
“It’s not a constitutional guarantee to have a body standing beside you. It’s a constitutional guarantee to have a lawyer who really investigates your case, who researches what the law in your case is, who litigates the case,” Kelly said.
A study issued last month by the Spangenberg Group and the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., warned that Missouri’s public defender system had been pushed “to the brink of collapse.” Researchers said there had been little improvement since 2005 and that Missouri ranked 49th in per-capital spending for indigent defense.