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Reidar Hammond, left, and Rod Hackathorn discuss one of nearly 200 open cases on which Hammond is serving as public defender.
Reidar Hammond, left, and Rod Hackathorn discuss one of nearly 200 open cases on which Hammond is serving as public defender.

Public defenders go on offensive

Posted online
Part I of a series

Missouri’s public defenders say the state system has been crippled for a decade. Now, a Supreme Court case in the works may give the defenders the emergency care they’ve been seeking.

The State Public Defense System hopes to alleviate some of the pressure on its attorneys and clients when offices are operating beyond capacity. At the core of the matter is a $34.7 million budget, which is less than half the $55 million officials say is needed to hire enough attorneys and staff to alleviate the caseload crisis. The system’s latest effort – a June decision to close offices to new cases when offices reach capacity – is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court and may bring the issue to a head.

On July 22, Springfield was the first office to reach its maximum capacity, with a caseload expected to require 2,433 man hours during the month. But not all judges chose to honor the closing. Christian County Judge John S. Waters ordered the Springfield public defenders’ office, whose 20 lawyers defend indigent individuals in Greene, Christian and Taney counties, to take a case involving second-degree burglary and forgery after the office closed. In response, the public defenders filed a writ, the Missouri Public Defender Commission vs. Waters.

“A writ means it’s happening in the middle of a case, while an appeal comes after a case,” said Cat Kelly, deputy director for the public defense system. “Essentially, it sought a writ of prohibition from the Supreme Court, to tell us the judge cannot appoint us to this case.”

A preliminary decision by the State Supreme Court came down Sept. 3, giving the judge until Oct. 4 to file a response, said Kelly, who noted a series of back-and-forth legal proceedings may go on for several weeks after that.

The need
The statewide public defenders’ system currently employs 570, but an in-house study analyzing caseloads shows the state could hire another 125 lawyers, 90 secretaries, 109 investigators and 130 legal assistants, as well as add office space, to meet Justice Department standards for annual attorney case volumes, Kelly said. That would require an annual commitment of $21 million, according to Kelly.

The Springfield defenders’ office employs 20 attorneys, four clerks, two legal assistants and two investigators, said Rod Hackathorn, district defender and head of the Springfield office. He estimated attorneys in the office have on average 120 open cases at any given time.

For Public Defender Reidar Hammond, one of the office’s three attorneys working Taney County cases, that number can surpass 200. By comparison, Hammond said his private practice criminal defense colleagues start to limit cases when their loads hit 50.

Additionally, Springfield’s support staff is overwhelmed, Hackathorn said.

“We did an internal workload study in 2007, and found more than 13 percent of our attorneys’ time is spent doing things that should be done by support staff,” Kelly said. “That comes out to about 320 hours per year per lawyer. That’s not a small number.”

Cycle continues
Client contact also falls by the wayside due to the number of cases the Springfield office handles, Hackathorn said.

“There are a lot of things I did in private practice that I don’t have time to do here,” Hammond added, pointing to taking calls from client family members as an example. “The more time you spend, the more you’ll inevitably find that can help your case.”

The Springfield public defenders’ office reopened to new cases on Aug. 1, Hackathorn said, and once again reached caseload capacity Aug. 17.

“My guess is we’ll reach capacity earlier in September,” he said, noting that he expects capacities to be met earlier each month, as some judges are asking indigent defendants to return on the first of the next month to be assigned a defender.

Should the Supreme Court ruling turn out in favor of the defenders’ office, it would indicate that the office has the right to turn down clients when it reaches capacity. That isn’t a solution to the problem, Hackathorn noted.

“Something would have to be done,” he said. “Just because we can refuse a case doesn’t mean a defendant’s constitutional rights are obliterated.”

The court may have options other than a public defender, Kelly noted, including removing the risk of jail time on minor cases, and appointing private counsel to handle excess caseloads. A waiting list for public defender services could be developed, she said.

“That could become its own constitutional crisis, though, in terms of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial,” she said.[[In-content Ad]]

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