Kansas City public defenders, like overburdened colleagues across Missouri, say they are facing a tough choice: Lose their law licenses, go to jail, or quit. Some 25 public defenders filled a courtroom Thursday to support Ruth Petsch, the head of the public defender’s Kansas City office, as she argued to a judge that her office couldn’t take any more cases, the Kansas City Star reports. Since Monday, Petsch’s office has stopped assigning new cases to attorneys for fear of putting the public defenders in danger of losing their license for taking on more cases than they can properly handle. The high caseloads and low funding of Missouri’s public defender system have drawn criticism for years. The state ranks 49th for funding legal defense for people charged with crimes who can’t afford to pay a lawyer.
The stakes were raised last month when the Missouri Supreme Court put a Columbia-based public defender on probation for a year for neglecting clients — which he did because he had too many cases, says director Michael Barrett of Missouri’s public defenders system. The action put public defenders on notice that they were stuck in a Catch-22: If they take on too many cases, they could lose their law license to an ethics complaint. If they refuse to take more cases, they can be held in contempt of court and jailed. “Last month, the Missouri Supreme Court warned public defenders that they must follow the ethics rules just like every other lawyer, and that the answer to an excessive caseload was to either quit or decline to accept more cases than can be handled ethically,” Barrett said. “Now the court tells us that we are indeed not like other lawyers and we must first get the court’s permission before declining a case on ethics grounds.”