Jackson County’s district defender is asking for a new judge to hear her concerns about attorney caseloads following Presiding Judge John Torrence’s recent comments in a Kansas City Star interview in which he questioned the work ethic of young lawyers in her office.

In a Sept. 24 filing, Ruth Petsch, district defender for the Jackson County Public Defender’s Office, asked Torrence to step aside and assign a new judge to preside over an upcoming hearing intended to weigh the caseloads of the office’s attorneys.

Torrence previously denied Petsch’s request for a hearing, but the Western District Court of Appeals reversed his denial in June. A hearing is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 12 in Division 14.

As the basis for her request, Petsch pointed to a Sept. 5 interview with two members of the Kansas City Star’s editorial board and Torrence, which the Star streamed live on its Facebook page. Their wide-ranging conversation touched on the ongoing disagreement between the public defender’s office and the court on the issue of public-defender caseloads.

Public defenders argue that they are overloaded with cases but have no option to refuse them. Their concerns about caseloads and providing adequate representation were magnified after the Supreme Court disciplined a public defender in 2017 for missing client deadlines and failing to adequately communicate with clients. Torrence agrees that they have large caseloads, but he has declined to grant caseload relief to the Jackson County office by installing a wait-list for clients or appointing private attorneys to take on cases.

In the interview with the Star, Torrence acknowledged that the public defender’s office is facing real challenges, but he said there are ways the public defenders can manage their caseloads better. He said a problem is that attorneys there spend a lot of time “just simply resisting doing anything.”

“. . . The problem we’re having is that they don’t even go to the jail now,” he said. “They don’t go over and interview anybody when they come in. They claim they’re too busy. And so they are trying to delay their representation, which of course, doesn’t help anything.”

Star columnist Dave Helling asked Torrence about heavy caseloads and about whether the Jackson County office has enough attorneys on staff.

Torrence said both issues are of greater concern for public defender offices in other counties. He pointed to St. Louis County, where a judge has granted caseload relief for public defenders. He said that office has 17 attorneys, whereas the Jackson County office has 35.

Torrence also questioned the work ethic of young attorneys, saying it affects the productivity of the public defender’s office.

“You know, younger lawyers do not like to work hard,” he said. “You know, you talk to anybody.”

He said that issue extends to young people in a variety of fields, including engineers, architects and physicians.

“There is not a young lawyer in a civil law firm that isn’t being pushed to work 60- to 70-hour weeks. That is part of the job,” he said. “You know when you become a lawyer, you are a professional and you have a duty to your client.”

Torrence said part of the job involves working hard, as well as working nights and weekends.

“We all did it coming up,” he said. “Many of us still do it, but you see resistance to that. And I am not saying that exclusively [is] what’s going on here, but it is a piece of it.”

In her motion to replace Torrence, Petsch’s attorney, John Aisenbrey of Stinson Leonard Street in Kansas City, wrote that a reasonable interpretation of Torrence’s comments is that he has already made up his mind on the issue before him in the upcoming hearing.

Aisenbrey wrote that the purpose of Petsch’s petition is to determine whether the public defenders in Jackson County have a problem with excessive caseloads, which in turn impairs their ability to provide adequate representation, and, if so, to find a solution.

“The judge who presides over this Action must be willing to hear the parties, consider the issues based on the evidence put before her or him, and consider all forms of relief authorized by the Constitution and Section 600.063,” he wrote.

“Judge Torrence’s public statements can reasonably be interpreted to suggest that he has already formed an opinion that the District Defender’s concerns lack merit and, instead, are largely a result of what he perceives to be a poor work ethic and mismanagement,” he added.

Petsch and Aisenbrey could not be reached for comment. Torrence declined to comment on the motion, saying he had not seen it.

The case is In Re: Area 16 Public Defender Office III, 1716-MC14505.

By: Jessica Shumaker | Missouri Lawyers Weekly