Detailing stories of public defenders missing hearings, with their clients forced to wait in jail as they struggle to build a case, a class-action lawsuit charges that the state of Missouri has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to fund its public defenders, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Brought by the ACLU of Missouri and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, the petition says it would take an additional $20 million per year and more than 300 more lawyers for the public defender system “to meet the constitutional floor of providing minimally adequate representation to indigent defendants.” The suit says, “The constitutional right to counsel is not merely the right to a warm body licensed to practice law at one’s side once trial begins.”
The state’s struggle to pay for representation for its poorest residents has been well-documented. Most recently, state public defender Michael Barrett assigned a case to former Gov. Jay Nixon, a lawyer and former attorney general. A court said Barrett acted outside his authority, but the incident made national headlines. “For three decades, the state of Missouri has known about the failings of its public defense system,” said ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert. “This chronic underfunding has resulted in an equally chronic constitutional crisis in Missouri that has cost the livelihood of thousands of Missourians who are denied justice because their attorneys couldn’t devote the necessary time or resources to their cases.” Costs for public defenders have steadily increased over the last ten years, but they could cope because caseloads remained relatively steady. Then they were asked to grapple with a 12 percent increase in cases, without funding from the state to address to growing workload.