Judge vetoes plan to cut Missouri public defenders’ workload

KANSAS CITY (AP) — A federal judge refused approval of a deal to reduce Missouri public defenders’ case workloads, saying the proposed agreement was essentially unworkable.

The consent decree submitted to the court last May would have limited public defenders to no more than 174 hours of casework a month, according to KCUR-FM.

Though studies dating back to 1993 conclude the Missouri public defender system is stretched beyond capacity, in an order issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey said the consent decree proposed was not the way to solve the problem because judges were not bound by the agreement, forcing public defenders to choose between violating the consent decree or being subject to contempt of court.

“Viewed from this enforcement perspective, the proposed consent decree appears illusory because the [Missouri public defender system] is caught between conflicting judicial decrees and there is no practical remedy,” Laughrey wrote.

In addition to limited caseloads, public defenders would have also been allowed to aggressively challenge the government’s case before trial, which Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt argued didn’t protect the interests of the public, essentially allowing “untold numbers of alleged felons to avoid criminal prosecution.”

The proposed settlement would have also resolved a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in March 2017, alleging the state’s public defender system is chronically underfunded and understaffed.

Laughrey wrote at the conclusion of her 12-page ruling that the Court was sympathetic to the difficult position the public defender system and its attorneys were in but that “the proposed consent decree is not the vehicle to ensure that the [Missouri public defender system] and the State of Missouri meet their legal obligation to provide constitutionally adequate representation to indigent defendants.”

ACLU officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

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