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St. Louis County implements public defender waitlist

Private attorneys in St. Louis County soon may find themselves assigned to represent indigent clients in certain types of low-level felony cases.

On Dec. 5, following a prolonged effort by public defenders from the St. Louis County Trial Office to obtain caseload relief, Presiding Judge Gloria Clark Reno issued an administrative order establishing a waitlist. She also authorized the appointment of private attorneys in cases involving certain types of low-level felonies.

In remarks at the St. Louis County Courthouse on Jan. 23, she praised the public defenders, as well as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell and regional bar associations for their support of the initiative to appoint private attorneys to cases.

According to a court release, leaders of the Mound City Bar Association, the Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater St. Louis, the St. Louis County Bar Association, the Lawyers Association of St. Louis, The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, the Hispanic Bar Association and the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel have expressed willingness to participate in the effort.

The court said it will select private attorneys at random from a list of more than 7,000 licensed attorneys in St. Louis County.

Attorneys selected who have not practiced criminal law will receive video training by current public defenders. The videos will be available on the court’s website in the coming weeks.

Reno said private attorneys are unlikely to be appointed to handle a case more than once every few years.

Reno’s order follows an Oct. 28 motion filed by St. Louis County District Defender Stephen Reynolds seeking a waitlist operated in tandem with the appointment of private counsel.

He argued that “a de facto waitlist” was already in place because the assistant public defenders in his office were so overburdened that on a frequent basis they were unable to return phone calls or visit confined clients.

Reynolds’ office initially was granted caseload relief in March 2018 after former Presiding Judge Douglas R. Beach found 16 of the office’s public defenders were unable to provide effective assistance of counsel because of individual caseload concerns.

Relief was put on hold when former Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch appealed the ruling to the Eastern District Court of Appeals. The Eastern District transferred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.

In early 2019, before the high court heard the case, Bell — then newly elected — dismissed the appeal.

The case is In re: Missouri State Public Defender, 18SL-CC00129.

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