Kansas City public defenders, like their overburdened colleagues across Missouri, say they are facing a tough choice: Lose their law licenses, go to jail, or quit.
About 25 public defenders filled a courtroom in the Jackson County Circuit Court Thursday to support Ruth Petsch, the head of the public defender’s Kansas City office, as she argued to a judge that her office couldn’t take any more cases.
Since Monday, Petsch’s office has stopped assigning new cases to attorneys for fear of putting the public defenders in danger of losing their license for taking on more cases than they can properly handle.
The high caseloads and low funding of Missouri’s public defender system have drawn criticism for years. The state ranks 49th in the country for funding legal defense for people charged with crimes who can’t afford to pay a lawyer.
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But the stakes were raised last month when the Missouri Supreme Court put a Columbia-based public defender on probation for a year for neglecting clients — which he did because he had too many cases, according to Michael Barrett, the director of Missouri’s public defenders system.
The action put public defenders across Missouri on notice that they were stuck in a Catch-22: If they take on too many cases, they could lose their law license to an ethics complaint. But if they refuse to take more cases, they can be held in contempt of court and jailed.
“Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court warned public defenders that they must follow the ethics rules just like every other lawyer, and that the answer to an excessive caseload was to either quit or decline to accept more cases than can be handled ethically,” Barrett said.
“Now the court tells us that we are indeed not like other lawyers and we must first get the court’s permission before declining a case on ethics grounds.”
Presiding Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence earlier this week wrote to Petsch that her office can’t refuse to take new cases, urging her to instead work with the court and the prosecutors to manage the caseloads.
“I think their caseloads are high,” Torrence said Thursday. “I also think there are ways to whittle down the caseloads,” if the public defenders would change some of their policies and seek out legal forms of relief.
Torrence said one problem the public defenders face is that it can take hours to visit an inmate in the Jackson County Jail because of how the facility operates. Still, he said, the public defenders can’t stop taking cases.
“It’s a mess, but the fact is they have no authority to do what they’re doing,” Torrence said.
In Kansas City, the public defender’s office typically brings in about 80 to 100 new cases a week. The 34 lawyers average workloads of about 100 cases at a time.
The public defenders aren’t refusing to take cases, Petsch said, but are putting them on hold until they can figure out how to ethically take them on without risking their law licenses.
“We’re not trying to not work,” Petsch said. “If I take on more cases than I can ethically handle, I’m open to discipline.”
For the public, what is at stake is the ability to have an effective defense lawyer for people who can’t afford to pay one, Petsch said. Innocent people can be convicted of crimes, as evidenced by the exoneration last week of Lamonte McIntyre, wrongfully convicted in Wyandotte County in 1994 for a double-murder he never committed.
In Kansas City, Petsch said, the public defender system leaves defendants sitting in jail for as much as a year before a lawyer is able to get their case disposed.
“Can you afford to sit in jail for a year?” Petsch asked.
Michael Barrett, the director of Missouri’s public defenders system, has frequently argued that his office needs more attorneys.
In March, The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the state of not adequately funding its public defender system.
Last year, Barrett appointed then-governor Jay Nixon as a defense attorney to represent a client who couldn’t afford one of his own. The appointment, Barrett said, was to bring attention to repeated budget cuts.
But the court in Cole County ruled later that month that Barrett didn’t have the authority to make such appointments.
This year, the Missouri public defender saw a budget increase of $4.5 million — the most in years — but it is not enough to relieve the pressure, Barrett said.
“Public defenders want to represent these defendants and we want to do it ethically,” Barrett said. “Because some courts seem more interested in moving dockets than ensuring that poor Missourians have an adequate defense, our lawyers find themselves stuck between a threat of losing their license and contempt of court.”