Missouri Public Defender Commission v. Waters

State ex re. Missouri Public Defender Commission, Cathy R. Kelly and Rod Hackathorn v. The Honorable John S. Waters and the Honorable Mark Orr

In Missouri, the legislature established a Public Defender Commission to issue regulations on the administration and operations of the state’s defender services. The rule at issue in the case is 18 CSR 10-4.010, which requires the commission to maintain a caseload’s standards protocol identifying the maximum caseload each office can be assigned without sacrificing effective representation. When an office exceeds the maximum caseload standard for three consecutive months, the director may limit the office’s availability to accept new cases.

On July 31, 2012 the Supreme Court of Missouri issued its opinion on whether or not a trial judge may appoint an indigent defendant to the Public Defender’s office when the office is certified for limited availability due to an excessive caseload capacity. Judge Waters assigned Jared Blacksher’s case to the district’s Public Defender’s Office despite the office’s unavailability pursuant to the Commission’s regulation. The Judge ignored the administrative rule believing the Sixth Amendment right to counsel left him no choice but to appoint a public defender. The Public Defenders sought relief from Judge Waters orders to represent Mr. Blacksher.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge exceeded his authority by assigning a public defender in contravention of the rule. The Court faced three arguments in support of Judge Waters’ order. First, that the case was moot, because the defendant had accepted a plea bargain. The Court found this case to fall under the public interest exception, because the issue presented is of general public importance and capable of repetition yet evading review. Second, the regulation permitting defender offices to limit their availability is bad public policy. The Court noted that a rule must be followed unless it is invalid or inapplicable, but that neither was shown in this case. And third, public defenders are obligated under the Sixth Amendment to accept an appointment regardless of their caseload. The Court reiterated that the Sixth Amendment gives a defendant, not just the right to counsel, but effective assistance of counsel. It is the judge’s duty to ensure that the defendant has effective assistance of counsel and this right is “affirmative and prospective.” The Court found that this duty means “a judge may not appoint counsel when the judge is aware that, for whatever reason, counsel is unable to provide effective representation to a defendant. Effective, not just pro forma, representation is required by the Missouri and federal constitutions.”

The Court sympathized with the situation facing the parties and suggested judges should use their inherent authority to manage their dockets by taking a proactive role in ensuring effective representation. One suggestion was using methods such as to “triage” cases by appointing public defenders to the most serious offenses and delaying the appointment of counsel for minor offenses.

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