Court OKs Ruling Denying Defender Caseload Relief

A Missouri appeals court has set a high bar for public defenders to overcome when appealing circuit-court denials of their motions for caseload relief.

In a June 9 ruling, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District adopted an abuse of discretion standard of review for cases stemming from a 2013 law that provides a mechanism for district defenders to ask circuit court presiding judges for caseload relief for individual attorneys.

Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, said she anticipates the standard of review being a key part of a motion to transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.

“I think if the statute is going to have value to the state, there would be value in getting a decision from the Supreme Court as to how they would like to see it put into practice,” she said in an interview.

Jackson County District Defender Ruth Petsch had sought to overturn Jackson County Circuit Court Presiding Judge David M. Byrn’s order denying caseload relief for two individual attorneys in her office, David Wiegert and Walter Stokely, as well as her office as a whole.

She also argued that the 2013 law is unconstitutional, asserting that a provision that prohibits public defenders from declining to take on new cases because they already have too many to ethically handle is at odds with attorney ethics rules that require attorneys to provide effective assistance of counsel for their clients.

Under the new standard of review, appeals courts would largely defer to presiding judges and place the burden on public defenders to show that the judges abused their discretion in reaching their decisions.

The ruling also closes the door to Petsch and district defenders across the state who seek to raise concerns about the law’s constitutionality using the process set out in the caseload-relief law.

Since 2017, Petsch has sought caseload relief from the Jackson County Circuit Court under Section 600.063 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. Following an evidentiary hearing in 2019, Byrn denied relief, finding that neither the individual attorneys nor the wider office were too overburdened to accept new cases while providing effective representation to existing clients.

Before addressing Petsch’s arguments, the court panel first had to decide the applicable standard of review — an issue of first impression.

The parties disagreed on what the correct standard should be. Petsch argued the court should review Byrn’s factual findings for competent and substantial evidence and that de novo review was appropriate for the application of law to the facts, or to interpreting the statute.

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, however, contended that appeals courts should affirm presiding judges’ decisions if factual findings are supported by competent and substantial evidence and to defer to the presiding judges’ credibility findings.

The Western District concluded that the case-relief law describes a procedure for the exercise of a court’s inherent authority and responsibility to manage its dockets.

“As such, and consistent with appellate review of other trial court rulings involving the exercise of discretion pursuant to inherent authority, orders issued by a presiding judge following a section 600.063 conference are presumed to be correct, are reviewed for an abuse of discretion, and the burden of showing an abuse of discretion is on the appellant,” Judge Cynthia L. Martin wrote in the opinion.

Petsch argued that Byrn erred in refusing to declare provisions of the caseload-relief law subordinate to the Rules of Professional Conduct and that the law was unconstitutional as applied if it was interpreted to limit the ability of public defenders to decline or delay appointments in order to comply with ethics rules.

The court ruled that in a proceeding under the caseload-relief statute, a district defender cannot ask a presiding judge for a declaratory judgment about the constitutional validity of the statute.

“The District Defender remains free to challenge the constitutionality of sections 600.062 and 600.063 in any other proceeding where those issues can be properly raised,” Martin said. “But the constitutionality of sections 600.062 and 600.063 cannot be raised in a section 600.063 motion, nor determined by a presiding judge following a section 600.063 conference.”

Judges Lisa White Hardwick and Thomas N. Chapman agreed.

Petsch and her attorney, John C. Aisenbrey of Stinson, declined to comment. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office also declined to comment.

The case is In re: Area 16 Public Defender Office III v. Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, WD82962.

By Jessica Shumaker | Missouri Lawyers Media

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