Judiciary

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Judges across Missouri have turned a blind eye to problems faced by overburdened public defenders by ignoring their pleas for help, forcing assembly-line justice and even requiring violation of ethics rules, critics say.

Ethics rules say lawyers must provide competent representation, the Kansas City Star reports. But some public defenders are arguing oppressive caseloads make it impossible to comply.

In Kansas City, Judge David Byrn denied requests for relief filed by public defenders, according to the newspaper’s investigative report. In Livingston and Clay counties, judges won’t allow public defenders to present their arguments in person.

In Henry County, a judge heard a public defender’s request in December 2017 but never issued a response before the PD moved to another county in February 2018. The PD who made the request had 763 cases in one year and was facing an ethics complaint.

One judge, Richard Standridge of Kansas City, has issued orders that say public defenders are required to violate the ethics rule on lawyers’ responsibilities and take on more cases. Standridge told the Kansas City Star he wrote the orders to protect the public defenders.

Legal experts told the newspaper they were shocked that a judge would say such a thing in writing.

Judge John Torrence of Kansas City told the Kansas City Star that some public defender’s offices in Missouri are stretched thin and the system needs proper funding. But the public defender’s office in Kansas City is properly staffed, he said.

Caseloads have been declining since 2011, yet public defenders still report caseloads are too high. That “ought to raise an eyebrow,” he said.

Torrence said public defenders contributed to their problems when they stopped participating in the early-disposition docket where defendants make expedited guilty pleas.

Deputy district defender Joseph Megerman explained how the docket worked. He would get evidence for several cases in the afternoon, although electronic evidence such as dashcam videos was not disclosed. The next day he would learn plea offers and present them to defendants. All the defendants were brought to a secured courtroom, and Megerman wasn’t able to meet with clients individually.

Taking the time to investigate would produce better results, Megerman said.

But Torrence said in some cases the evidence is overwhelming and additional steps aren’t needed before plea negotiations. As he sees it, public defenders suffer self-inflicted problems of inefficiencies and bad policies.

But Michael Barrett, who led the Missouri State Public Defender System for four years, has a different view. He told the Kansas City Star that judges don’t want public defenders to hold hearings and file motions because it causes them to work.

“They’ve simply turned a blind eye,” Barrett said of the judges. “They just want us to facilitate pleas.”

Barrett’s last day in the job is Friday.