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Missouri Supreme Court stops public defenders from rejecting cases

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that public defender offices could not outright reject cases due to their workloads.

The court got involved after public defenders in southwest Missouri’s Stoddard County asked to stop taking cases. The Supreme Court decided that public defenders needed to go through rules set out in state law before deciding they could not handle a case.

Prosecutor Russell Oliver contested the public defender’s efforts to avoid the new cases. He said in a news release that the state laws, passed in 2013, allow all sides of a case to be heard.

“This means that the entire court system, the judges, the prosecutors and the public defenders will be involved in the discussion, rather than one person making the unilateral decision to shut down the courts,” Oliver said.

The caseloads of public defenders have for years exceeded what the American Bar Association recommends for attorneys, according to numerous studies done throughout the last decade. The office faced added pressure when the Supreme Court put the law license of one of its attorneys on probation for failing to work with clients for several years. Karl Hinkebein, a veteran of the appellate office, claimed a medical issue and a high caseload kept him from doing his job.

David Wallis, the district defender for Boone and Cooper counties, said the Supreme Court’s decision was surprising. The Hinkebein decision held them to the ethical standards all other attorneys face, while the Stoddard County decision makes it seem public defenders have additional steps to try and handle their caseloads in order to meet those standards.

Wallis said his office began paying private attorneys to handle new cases of people that qualify for the public defender service in custody. Previously, Presiding Judge Kevin Crane was appointing attorneys to those cases pro bono. For those out of custody, Wallis said their names are added to a waiting list. As of Friday, more than 200 people were on that list.

“People who are otherwise qualified, poor, who can’t afford to hire an attorney, who are looking at the prospect of incarceration, they are on a waiting list,” Wallis said.

Wallis said he hopes to get more direction from the Public Defender Commission after its Wednesday meeting. He remained skeptical that circuit judges would grant requests they made for relief under the state laws outlined in Stoddard County case.

“I think that prior to all this happening with Hinkebein, they all thought we were doing great jobs,” Wallis said. “That we were doing as best we could with what we could, and I doubt very seriously that if we petitioned the court under [the state law] that they would grant us relief. I don’t think the courts believe we’re overworked.”

Wallis said his attorneys will handle well past the 150 felony cases and 400 misdemeanor cases the ABA recommends lawyers handle in a calendar year. The Hinkebein decision has many of his employees anxious about the future of their law licenses, should someone file an ethical complaint against them. The office fields several calls from potential clients wondering when an attorney will be able to handle their case.

The commission is set for a teleconference on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

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