For the first time, a Missouri appeals court has ruled that district defenders can seek — and be granted — caseload relief for all attorneys in a public defender’s office, so long as they argue each attorney’s case individually.
On Oct. 6, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals Western District sided with the Area 5 Public Defender Office in its appeal of a judgment by Buchanan County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Daniel E. Kellogg denying caseload relief to the office’s seven attorneys.
Greg Mermelstein, general counsel for the Missouri State Public Defender System, said the ruling is important “because we want to, and need to be able to, talk about all of our attorneys in a public defender office who have excessive caseloads when we have a caseload conference with a judge.”
“Some judges around the state had been saying because the statute uses the saying ‘entire offices,’ we’re not able to talk about [all attorneys’ caseloads], but the Western District says that’s not a correct interpretation of the statute, and we agree,” he said.
According to the opinion written by Judge Mark D. Pfeiffer, in November 2019, District Defender Shayla Marshall filed a motion requesting a conference with Kellogg to discuss attorney caseloads.
She alleged that each of the attorneys in her office individually had excessive caseloads and is violating or are at risk of violating ethics rules if they continue to accept new cases.
While she acknowledged that the statute allowing for a conference prohibits discussion of an entire office’s caseload, she said a conference was necessary because none of the attorneys in her office is able to accept new cases.
Kellogg held a conference in January. Marshall testified at the conference that because of their excessive caseloads, attorneys in her office are unable to meet with clients in a timely fashion, visit clients in jail and fully prepare before pleading, trial or sentencing.
In response, she said, the office implemented an informal waitlist with 22 noncustodial clients on it. Marshall asked Kellogg to formally authorize the waitlist.
Later in January, Kellogg issued a judgment denying the request for relief, concluding as a matter of law that seeking relief for the entire office is precluded by state law governing caseload conferences. The public defender’s office appealed.
In examining the statute governing caseload conferences, Pfeiffer examined its origins. In 2008, the Missouri Public Defender Commission enacted an administrative rule that allowed public defenders to decline new appointments if a district office exceeded a maximum caseload standard, he said.
In 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the rule in State ex rel. Missouri Public Defender Commission v. Waters. In response, the Missouri legislature in 2013 passed a law with provisions prohibiting public defenders from declining new cases and also established a new way for district defenders to seek relief.
Under the law, district defenders can petition the circuit court for a conference to discuss caseload issues involving any individual public defender or defenders, but not the office as a whole.
The issue of first impression before court in the present case, Pfeiffer wrote, was whether the law prohibits a district defender from discussing and seeking relief from excessive caseloads for all of the individual attorneys in a public defender office and additionally prohibits the circuit court from discussing and granting relief to all individual attorneys.
The 2013 law shifted the caseload calculation metric from office-based to individual-based decisions, Pfeiffer said.
“As long as a district defender requests the circuit court to consider whether specifically identified public defenders are experiencing excessive caseloads rather than whether the public defender office has exceeded a caseload standard, the statute is not violated,” he concluded.
Such a reading is both logical and supported by the plain and ordinary meaning of the words used in the statute, he said.
“It would be illogical and a waste of judicial resources to require the District Defender to bring individual attorney caseload issues before the presiding judge in a piecemeal fashion in the event that each public defender in the office was then experiencing an excessive caseload,” he said.
Judges Edward D. Ardini Jr. and Thomas N. Chapman agreed.
Mermelstein said he believes the ruling will allow judges to get a more informed view of public defender caseloads and be able to apply the law more effectively than before. The only time caseload conferences become necessary are when there are no attorneys in an office who can take on new cases, he said.
“The statute would be somewhat unworkable in the absence of the Western District’s ruling,” he said.
The panel remanded the case for further proceedings, specifically ordering Kellogg to make factual findings as to each of the individual attorneys seeking caseload relief.
The case is In re: Area 5 Public Defender Office v. Kellogg, WD83535.