Court of Appeals transfers St. Louis County public defender case to Missouri Supreme Court

CLAYTON, Mo. – After conducting an analysis of the language used by the legislature in regards to Missouri’s public defenders, the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District transferred the St. Louis County Public Defender case to the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Along with the announcement of transferring the case, the court issued an opinion, signed by Presiding Judge James M. Dowd, detailing why the case is a matter of administrative action.

St. Louis County Judge Douglas R. Beach sent an appeal on behalf of District 21 in accordance with §600.063. According to the Court of Appeals opinion, §600.063 is a “2013 effort by the legislature to address Missouri public defender ‘caseload concerns’ by giving each district defender the authority to request relief from the presiding judge on behalf of individual public defenders working in the district office.”

The opinion stated that this is the first time the court has had to interpret §600.063. Beach’s motion was filed on behalf of 16 out of the 20 public defenders who work in his office, claiming their caseloads are “excessive.”

“[He further claims] that those 16 public defenders ‘will be unable to provide effective assistance of counsel’ unless the presiding judge granted certain of the measures of relief authorized by the statute §600.063,” the opinion stated.

According to the opinion, merits of the appeal were considered, after the nature of the claim was determined, in order to decide whether the matter would be a court-tried, civil action case or administrative action.

Based on its analysis in accordance with the applicable rules of statutory construction, the court determined to “reverse [the] case with directions that the presiding judge conducts such a procedure consistent with [the] opinion but due to the issues of general interest and importance presented.” The case was transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court, in accordance with Rule 83.02.

The opinion stated a statute or regulation is deemed ambiguous if the “legislative intent cannot be determined from the plain meaning of the language.” By following the principles of statutory construction, the court should then adopt only “reasonable interpretations,” disregarding “absurd results.”

“We find that §600.063 is ambiguous in regards to the rules, standards and procedures the legislature intended the presiding judge to apply when considering motions filed pursuant to the statute,” the opinion stated.

While the court is not “critical” of the presiding judge’s decision to treat the claim as a court-tried civil action, it did conclude that the judge was in error.

“Public defender caseload concerns would almost certainly be better addressed by the legislature through budgetary action or by enacting statutory caseload protocols or standards,” the opinion stated. “Rather than by tasking the judicial branch with the potentially overwhelming responsibility of considering case by case whether each individual public defender who claims a caseload issue will, in fact, be unable to provide effective assistance of counsel…”

The legislature already determined there is only one type of case that is labeled “civil action” in the state of Missouri. Therefore, by interpreting §600.063 as a civil action, it would require the application of “our well-established and mandatory rules of civil procedure, discovery, evidence, burdens of proof and standards of review.”

Following the statute’s requirement of the presiding judge weighing in on what would constitute as ineffective assistance of counsel would risk intruding the authority of the Supreme Court.

“Our Supreme Court possess inherent authority to regulate the practice of law and administer attorney discipline in Missouri,” the opinion stated. “This authority is exclusive and the Court’s jurisdiction over disciplinary matters is original.”

While the legislature, in the case of the St. Louis County public defender case, listed the presiding judge has the one whom will handle these particular motions, the presiding judge in Missouri judicial circuits wear two hats – general jurisdiction, responsible for presiding over adversarial litigation cases, and chief administrative officer of the circuit court.

“We find it significant that the legislature would designate the administrative head of the circuit to handle these motions,” the opinion stated. “These factors, and basic logic, support the conclusion that the legislature intended this to be an administrative procedure before the presiding judge in which the presiding judge is being asked to render a decision with regard to how important sector of his circuit’s docket – criminal cases involving the public defender’s office – will be administered.”

Within the language, the Court of Appeals focused on the term “conference,” establishing a further reason for them to issue the case to the Supreme Court. Following Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, the Court of Appeals determined “conference” as “a meeting for consultation, discussion, or an interchange of opinions whether of individuals or groups.”

The court noted that the legislature could have used the term “hearing” or even “trial” but chose to stick with “conference.” With that in mind, the court determined that the phrase, “a motion to request a conference to discuss caseload concerns,” by default describes “a non-adversarial event, not the litigation of a contested motion, much less a trial conducted by the court.”

The issue of the case, and the district defender’s burden, is whether or not the individual public defender has the ability to provide effective assistance of counsel due to an “excessive” caseload. With limited language and the acknowledgment that both the commission and the Supreme Court are experienced lawmakers, the question is what rules and procedures should govern the presiding judge’s task.

According to the court, the legislature intended an administrative procedure that would place the presiding judge in his capacity as the administrative body. With that being said, the Court stated they would remand the case with directions for the presiding judge to treat it as a contested case, subject to applicable procedures.

While the court would reverse the circuit court’s judgment, general interests and important issues presented made the Court of Appeals transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Read the full opinion here.