Judge finds Missouri’s public defender waiting list unconstitutional; gives legislature four months to fix it

Judge finds Missouri’s public defender waiting list unconstitutional; gives legislature four months to fix it
In February 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Missouri, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe filed a lawsuit to end the use of public defender waiting lists, alleging that more than 4,600 people were on the waiting list, and that the list was growing. (Source: None)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KFVS) - On February 18, 2021, Judge Willaim Hickle ruled that placing people on a waiting list for a public defender violates no only violates their U.S. Constitutional right to counsel and a speedy trial, but also violates the state constitutional right to counsel and a speedy public trial.

In February 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Missouri, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe filed a lawsuit to end the use of public defender waiting lists, alleging that more than 4,600 people were on the waiting list, and that the list was growing.

“Missouri’s use of waiting lists lets the state prosecute folks who cannot afford an attorney without the appointment of counsel to represent them. The practice is scandalous, and we are thrilled the judge recognized the magnitude of harm waiting lists inflict on individuals’ constitutional rights. While we respect the court’s decision to give the legislature an opportunity to finally provide enough funding for public defenders, waiting lists are a symptom of the legislature’s years of not taking the constitutional right to counsel seriously.”
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.

Hinkle found that the Missouri Public Defender Commission is currently underfunded, the public defenders are given enormous case loads.

According the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2016 public defenders had up to 590 cases per year, which is signicantly more than the 150 felonies, or 400 misdemeanors the 1973 U.S. Department of Justice’s National Advisory Commission advises.

In a 2020 article, the Associated Press found that some Missouri defendants had to wait for months or even years before they were assigned an attorney.

“Each day’s delay in investigating for the defendant and preserving evidence accrues to the defendant’s detriment, and thus a delay of weeks, much less of months or years, violates the obligation of the State to furnish counsel to ‘allow for adequate representation’ at critical stages and at trial.”
Judge Willaim Hickle

He the granted the state’s request to allow the legislature a chance to correct the issue. He gave them until July.

This response is precedented by a 1972 Missouri Supreme Court decision that corrected a similar issue, and created the current public defender system.

“Before the government can take away a person’s liberty, both the Missouri Constitution and the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution require that the case against the defendant be fully put to the test. That requires the adequate representation in court, which is mandated by law. Across the country states and municipalities failing to provide adequate resources to public defense systems have created an epidemic where the most vulnerable among us lack adequate legal representation to defend themselves against charges levied by the state. Missouri’s waiting lists are some of the most egregious examples of this and the court’s decision today highlights the unconstitutionality of the practice.”
Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

Governor Parson recommended the legislature approve a budget increase of $820,000, which was requested by the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office.

The funding would allow the office to hire 12 more public defenders.

The state must provide monthly status reports to Judge Hickle. The case will be back in court on July 1.

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