The chronically underfunded Missouri public defender system is now dealing with another vexing issue: the prospect that its overworked attorneys could be punished for not keeping up with their workloads. And that's leading to a growing standoff between judges and public defender attorneys.
The issue surfaced after the Missouri Supreme Court last month suspended a 21-year veteran of the public defender’s office in Columbia who was laboring under a huge caseload and was hospitalized with chronic health problems.
The lawyer, Karl William Hinkebein, was placed on probation for a year after the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel — the state agency that oversees attorney conduct — found that he failed to provide adequate representation to six of his clients between 2011 and 2013.
In the wake of that decision, many public defenders throughout the state are refusing to take on additional clients. Last week, Boone County Presiding Judge Kevin Crane said he would start appointing private attorneys to represent indigent clients. He has since appointed more than three dozen, who will be working pro bono, or without pay.
Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri public defender system, says the Supreme Court’s decision has left public defenders in an untenable position.
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