Missouri Supreme Court rules against public defender protest

By Michael Layer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Wednesday afternoon that public defenders will need to have the approval of a circuit court judge to turn down a case assigned to them. The decision follows a coordinated attempt by Leslie Hazel, the public defender for the 35th Judicial Circuit, and several others in Missouri to tell the courts that they would no longer be accepting any new criminal defendants as clients because of the excessive amount of work that is required to represent them.

Following the 1963 Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, people who are “too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for them,” and so state-financed public defenders became a part of the American legal system. However, since many people cannot afford to hire a private attorney many rely on public defenders.

A 2012 study conducted by the American Bar Association found that “researchers estimate that anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants need publicly funded attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction.” Because of the enormous amount of caseload, public defenders often have just minutes to prepare for each case and in that time cannot adequately represent indigent defendants.

Hazel and other defenders informed the court on September 28 that they would not accept any new criminal defendants as clients because of how many caseload they had to represent. Less than a week later, on October 4, Hazel demonstrated to Judge Robert Mayer that she would not represent three poor defendants. 

According to the current statutes, public defenders must file a motion from the local circuit judge, stating his or her issues with the case, and the judge holds a hearing to decide if her concerns are valid.

Stoddard County prosecuting attorney Russ Oliver filed a motion against her, saying that in order to refuse a case, she must obtain approval from the local circuit judge. A week later, Michael Barrett, the director of the public defender system filed a Petition for Writ of Prohibition against Judge Mayer from compelling Hazel to represent the defendants.

The Missouri Supreme Court ordered Oliver to file his response and agreed with him, ruling that public defenders must represent the defendants. Oliver referred to the decision as a “significant and vital victory to ensure that our criminal justice system does not shut down.”

This story originally appeared on The Missouri Times.

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