A case in which St. Louis County public defenders sought — and were granted — relief for heavy caseloads now is headed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

On Dec. 26, the Eastern District Court of Appeals transferred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court for review.

The heart of the case is a state law enacted in 2013 that establishes a process for district defenders to work with their circuit court’s presiding judge to obtain relief on an individual basis for public defenders in their offices.

Under Section 600.063, district defenders are required to address concerns about caseloads by filing a motion to request a meeting with the presiding judge and to state why individual public defenders can’t provide effective assistance of counsel.

District defenders across the state have attempted to use the process to obtain relief after a public defender in Columbia was disciplined in 2017 for missing deadlines for clients and failing to adequately communicate with them.

He unsuccessfully argued that excessive caseloads should have been a factor lessening his discipline. Ultimately, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered probation for the public defender.

Because public defenders also are barred by law from declining new cases, many of them say they are in an untenable position of being forced to handle large caseloads while risking potential disciplinary action for being unable to provide effective counsel.

In addition to St. Louis County, district defenders in Cole, Phelps, Livingston and Miller Counties filed motions for relief under the statute, but presiding judges denied relief in their cases. In Henry County, a presiding judge held a conference after the district defender filed a motion for relief, but did not issue any findings.

Jackson County’s district defender also has sought relief under the statute, but the presiding judge first refused to hold a hearing because the district defender sought relief for the entire office, then refused to hold a hearing on the record.

The district defender appealed the case to the Western District Court of Appeals, which ruled that a hearing should be on the record and remanded the case. The hearing has not been held.

Missouri appeals courts heard the first challenges to the law in June, when the Eastern District and Western District Court of Appeals heard separate cases centered on the statute on the same day.

In the Eastern District case now headed to the Missouri Supreme Court, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office appealed a March order from Judge Douglas R. Beach in which he determined that 16 of the 20 public defenders in the St. Louis County’s public defender’s office already served too many clients to ethically take on new cases.

In the order, Beach directed the district defender, Stephen Reynolds, to create a waitlist for new indigent clients in need of public defender services and to determine the maximum-caseload capacity for each individual attorney in his office. The order also opened the door to the possibility of appointing private counsel for indigent clients’ cases.

On appeal, the prosecuting attorney’s office argued Beach exceeded his authority in permitting a conference to discuss the caseload of the entire office because the law specifically requires that a conference address individual defenders’ caseloads.

In the Eastern District’s opinion, Judge James M. Dowd wrote that the statute is ambiguous in terms of the kind of claims it creates, and how a presiding judge should handle these matters.

“Here the presiding judge treated the matter before him as a court-tried case and applied a preponderance of the evidence burden of proof to the district defender’s claims,” Dowd wrote.

He said it is unclear, however, whether the legislature intended to create a court-tried civil action or whether the district defender’s claims under the statute should be decided as an administrative action under administrative procedures.

Dowd said the Eastern District’s analysis points to the latter, and it would choose to reverse the case with directions that the presiding judge conduct administrative proceedings.

Instead, however, the court transferred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court because of issues of general interest and importance it presented.

Both Reynolds and Michael Barrett, director of the state’s public defender system, declined to comment on the decision to transfer the case.

A spokesman for the prosecuting attorney’s office did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The case is In Re: Missouri State Public Defender District 21, St. Louis County Trial Office, ED106576.

By Jessica Shumaker | Missouri Lawyers Weekly