COLUMBIA, Mo. - The head of the Missouri Public Defender System and Boone County's top judge are asking the Missouri Supreme Court address several growing issues for public defenders.
ABC 17 News obtained the Oct. 4 letter from public defender system director Michael Barrett, Judge Kevin Crane and H. Riley Bock, the head of the Missouri State Public Defender Commission to the high court justices.
"We are currently experiencing issues that jeopardize the integrity of the system in several areas of the state and respectfully request a meeting with the Judges of the Supreme Court as soon as conceivably possible," the letter said. "We fear that without leadership the access to counsel issue may worsen."
The call comes amid fears that public defenders could lose their law licenses due to their high workloads. A recent Supreme Court decision to put public defender Karl Hinkebein's law license on probation sparked a request by the Boone County office to stop assigning cases to their attorneys. Crane began handing the cases of people who can't afford attorneys over to private lawyers a day later.
Barrett told ABC 17 News that not all circuit judges handle the situation the same way. Some judges have threatened public defenders with contempt of court if they refused cases, Barrett said. That puts attorneys in an untenable position - refuse the case and go to jail, or take the case and possibly lose your ability to work.
"All we're asking for is a little bit of guidance here," Barrett said. "Because we're inclined to do the right thing. We just need to know what the right thing is here."
Barrett said he had not heard from anyone at the Missouri Supreme Court since he sent the letter. Since the Hinkebein decision, two other ethics complaints have been filed against public defenders. A spokeswoman for the court did not return an email seeking comment from ABC 17 Nes.
Barrett credited Crane for showing leadership on the public defender issue. Crane has appointed 42 private attorneys to take cases in Boone County as of Wednesday. Assistant district defender Sarah Aplin said the pause has helped her catch up with her current work needed for active cases.
Aplin did not know when the office might be able to take cases again. Each attorney in the office has 120 to 130 cases apiece. The work often involves making trips to the jail, researching law surrounding the case and reviewing evidence. Devoting the proper amount of time would demand 23-hour days, Aplin said, which means some clients don't get the representation they need.
"Some clients get excellent advocacy," Aplin said. "Everyone gets the best that we can give them. It's just that we can't give everyone what they deserve."
The state budget passed this year approved $4.5 million more for the public defender system. Barrett said it was the largest increase they had seen in years. That money would have gone toward paying private attorneys for conflict cases, or criminal cases involving more than one person that the public defender's office already has. This would stop public defenders in distant areas from having to travel so often to other counties for cases, and focus more on their local cases.
Barrett said he was ready to turn the extra money into something tangible to show for next year's budget discussions, until the Supreme Court's decision on Hinkebein created conflict in their office.
"We need to know that if we take every case that comes through the door, and we're talking about 125 to 175 at any one time for a lawyer, that our law licenses are not going to be attacked," Barrett said.