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Missouri – which has one of the worst records for funding public defenders in the country – will see its public defender system on trial in front of the state Supreme Court.

At issue is decades of underfunding by state lawmakers which causes public defenders to take on three to four times the number of indigent clients than recommended. The situation effectively means poor people who face trial in Missouri have no Sixth Amendment rights.

December appeals court ruling

In December, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that the state Supreme Court should hear an appeal of the March 2018 decision by St. Louis County Judge Douglas Beach in which he ruled that 16 of the district’s 20 public defenders had such large caseloads that it made them unable to provide effective counsel.

Experts claim a public defender can handle between 50 and 60 cases at one time and service them effectively. Missouri’s public defenders currently handle 160 to 200 cases at one time.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives every citizen the right to adequate legal counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that courts must provide an attorney if the defendant can’t afford one. In state courts, the state provides public defenders. If the state doesn’t properly fund the system, the few public defenders have to take up the engorged caseload.

Judge’s order challenged

The issue is not new. Studies into chronic underfunding of Missouri public defenders go back decades and the problem is discussed almost every year. To name a few:

  • In 2010 the Missouri State Public Defender refused to take new cases, but relented under pressure from lawmakers.
  • In 2012 the state Supreme Court ruled that a district could refuse new cases if they exceeded a designated limit, but in 2013 lawmakers changed the rules so only judges could make that decision.
  • In 2014 a study by the American Bar Association said the state needed to increase funding to public defenders by $23.1 million to bring the office close to satisfactory staffing. That year, the governor proposed an increase of $1 million.

In his March 2018 ruling, Beach ordered several remedies including a cap on the number of cases assigned to each public defender.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch challenged the ruling, and in December the appeals court agreed, saying Beach should have judged the case through the court’s administrative branch rather than as a civil lawsuit.

However, instead of ordering the case back to trial court, the appeals court ruled the importance of the issue was worthy of kicking the case up to the state Supreme Court.

While the courts deliberate, thousands of Missourians remain imprisoned without effective counsel.

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