The Missouri House sent legislation to the governor providing the Missouri Public Defender Commission with more ability to control its caseload.
Sen. Jack Goodman’s bill would allow the state’s Public Defender Commission to implement a maximum caseload standard. Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, and other proponents of the bill have argued that failure to cement such authority would place public defenders at risk of violating ethical obligations.
Under the bill, the director of the public defender system would contract excess cases to private counsel when funds are available. If money is short, the director would notify the court that the public defender isn’t available. Any person eligible for a public defender then would go on a waiting list.
The caseload threshold was arguably the top priority for the state’s public defender system. It became especially resonant after the Western District Court of Appeals struck down an administrative rule allowing the commission some control over its caseload.
Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said the bill is a step in the right direction toward allowing the public defender system to a get a handle on its caseload.
“This bill does not deal with funding, but does deal with the other side of the coin – which is helping the public defenders better manage their caseload,” said Jones, an attorney who handled the bill in the House.
Rep. Don Calloway, D-St. Louis County, noted that Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith used a substantial portion of her State of the Judiciary Address to ask lawmakers to act on the public defender caseload situation. Calloway, also an attorney, called the measure “one of the more important pieces of legislation that this body can pass all year.”
“This is very much a constitutional issue,” Calloway said. “Because if we don’t have an effective and focused public defender system, then we cannot possibly satisfy the right to counsel that is inherent to the due process clause of the constitution.”
The legislation overwhelmingly passed by a 139-16 margin. It now heads to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.
Cathy Kelly, the state’s deputy public defender, said it was gratifying to see lawmakers express support for the legislation.
“And it is important that the state address the issues, not just this one, but the ongoing issues in the public defender system,” Kelly said. “It’s very cool to hear that recognition and that principle honored on the floor of the Legislature in speeches. It was a very good day for justice.”
Kelly said if Nixon signs the bill, the commission will wait to see the results of a caseload study from the Spangenberg Group and George Mason University that is due at the end of July. Once that study is received, Kelly said the Public Defender Commission would meet to officially adopt a workload standard.
“I have no doubt that there will be bugs to work out,” Kelly said. “But with the influx of the additional [money to hire employees] and the $2 million for contracts, it’s a good combination and a much better environment to implement this.” That money was approved last week.
While the bill received a resoundingly favorable vote, it faced some criticism.
Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, said he wanted to see legislation that also provides help to prosecutors. Lipke, who previously worked as an assistant prosecutor in Cape Girardeau County, said he would rather see a more “global” bill “since prosecutors are just as integral to the system as the public defenders are.”
“[Prosecutors] have caseload issues too,” Lipke said. “And I think you even heard some debate on the other side say we need ‘triage’ for the public defender system. I don’t want to triage it. I want to fix it. I want to do it all at one time. And I don’t think doing it in piecemeal is probably the best thing to do.”
In addition, Lipke said the Legislature should have waited for results of the study before passing Goodman’s legislation. He also said the bill gave the commission too much power in determining the system’s caseload.
“Not that it’ll happen, but I think this bill just gave total authority to the public defender commission to set that caseload standard to whatever level they want,” Lipke said. “And if they said one case a month was the only amount they could do, we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Many prosecutors in the state disagree with the bill. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch told lawmakers earlier this year that the defender’s caseload figures needed further study. He reiterated that point in an interview Thursday, calling them “highly inflated” and “bogus.” He also said the bill raised constitutional issues.
“How do I address the victim when they say, ‘We just can’t get this guy a lawyer right now, so you’re going to have to wait for your case, Mr. Victim, until they can fit him into their schedule.’ How is that addressing the problem?” McCulloch said.
He said he and other prosecutors might urge the governor to veto the bill.
Kelly said the commission was mindful of the fact that setting an unrealistically low threshold would prompt a legislative backlash.
“We’ve been given the chance to really ensure that our clients have decent representation,” Kelly said. “It’s a chance we know is not given lightly and is not one we’ll be taking or administrating lightly in any way either.”
-Scott Lauck contributed to this report.