COLUMBIA - The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that public defenders may not turn away clients without first getting permission from a county judge.
The ruling came in response to a Stoddard County public defender who refused three clients because he said he didn't have enough time for the clients he already represented.
The defender caught the attention of Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver, who sent a statement to the Missouri Supreme Court asking for a ruling on whether the public defender should be allowed to refuse.
The court made its ruling, saying public defenders need to follow a set of statues if they wish to lighten their caseload. The main statute requires public defenders to take their request to county judges, who will decide if the request is valid.
Oliver said he was very happy with the outcome of his letter to the Missouri Supreme Court.
"This ruling is significant and a vital victory to ensure that our criminal justice system does not shut down, not only in Stoddard County, but across the entire state of Missouri," he said.
In September, several public defenders across the state told the courts that they would no longer be accepting new criminal defendant clients, citing excessive caseloads as the reason.
Boone County Judge Kevin Crane announced a short term solution of appointing new cases to private defense attorneys, who would need to take them on pro bono.
After appointing 40 such cases, Crane said Tuesday he has no plans to continue this program.
David Wallis, head of the Boone County Public Defense Office, said he does not believe the Missouri Supreme Court's calling for judge permission will not solve the problem. He said this is a simple case of underfunding.
"We just need more money to hire more public defenders. The amount we have right now is not enough to handle our extreme demand of clients, that's why you see all these defenders across the state creating friction. They need to," Wallis said.
He said his attorneys were hired not just to defend clients, but to defend effectively.