Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Missouri public defenders between a rock and a hard place

A Missouri appeals court has said that the state's overburdened public defender officers can't refuse to take new cases due to caseloads. Link A state regulation had allowed offices throughout the state to decline new cases until caseload levels decreased. But the appeals court found that regulation was contrary to state law that requires the appointment of attorneys for indigent defendants.

Well, sure. All indigent defendants need to have attorneys appointed to represent them. But if the staff attorneys in Jefferson City or Columbia are completely swamped with cases, those offices ought to be able to say they can't handle any more cases. The solution can't be just to require those offices to take the cases. That's not a solution at all. There really is a finite number of cases that any public defender office can handle at any given time while still providing the effective assistance of counsel promised by the 6th Amendment. By not allowing the pd offices to turn down cases, the courts are practically forcing attorneys to violate either their ethical obligations to their clients or a court order. Either the state needs to pony up the money to hire more staff attorneys or counties need to pay for private contract attorneys to handle the overflow cases.

According to the article, Missouri ranks 49th in per capita spending on indigent defense. I think it's time for Missouri to work on raising its ranking a few spots.

6 comments:

mikeb302000 said...

Wow, 49th. It's funny; I usually don't associate Missouri with the worst of the worst, but I'm afraid they are.

S said...

If you were from Kansas, you wouldn't have any problem associating Missouri with the worst of the worst! :)

(Except Kansas City, which is a great little city and has great sports teams.)

Heather said...

And St. Louis! St. Louis is pretty awesome too, its just all that stuff in between...

Erin said...

What? Missouri next to last in something? Never. :)

S said...

I know, right, Erin? Usually they're dead last!

Heather, I'm pretty sure someone we both know would point out to you the excessively high crime rate of St. Louis and its possession of a really sucky baseball team.

DBB said...

Michigan is pretty far down the list for representing indigent defendants.

I think it is just sick that the courts won't allow them to turn down appointments when they can't handle them. If I was in that office, I'd take that to the Supreme Court and argue that it would be unethical for them to take the cases when they did not have time for them while working on OTHER indigent cases. Force the system to deal with it instead of sweeping it under the rug with the fig leaf of "see, we appointed counsel for everyone."

 
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