Though he found Missouri’s practice of putting poor criminal defendants on a waiting list to be appointed a public defender is unconstitutional, a state judge issued a stay to give legislators more time to remedy the situation, reported the Courthouse News Service.
In a ruling issued last Thursday, Phelps County Judge
William Hickle cited continued reductions in the number of defendants currently
on the list and the prospect of more funding being provided to the public
defender’s office that would eliminate the list entirely as reasons for the
The case, which Hickle heard during a two-day bench trial in
November, is stayed until June 30, 2021. A review is docketed for July 1, with
the state required to provide monthly updates regarding the number of
defendants on the list and the status of legislative funding.
“Respondents are optimistic that there will be sufficient
funding to wholly eliminate the [Missouri State Public Defender] waiting list
sometime this calendar year,” Hickle wrote. “Respondents urge that
separation-of-powers and comity interests are furthered by allowing the General
Assembly time to provide funding to eliminate the MSPD waiting lists, which in
turn will hopefully render moot Petitioners’ requests for relief.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the
plaintiffs, objected to the stay. Attorneys for both sides did not immediately
respond to a request for comment.
During the trial, Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s
criminal law reform project based in New York, told the court that five of the
named petitioners spent 93, 107, 116, 1147 and 160 days, respectively, on the
waiting list before being assigned representation.
He cited numbers from 2019, when there were 4,690 defendants
on the list. Of those, 2,744 had been waiting for at least three months; 2,233
for at least four months; 1,916 for at least five months; 1,546 for at least
six months; and 600 for one year.
When the trial occurred, there were roughly 2,000 people on
the waiting list. Of those, 1,113 had been waiting for at least three months;
922 for at least four months; 734 for at least five months; 665 for at least
six months; and 233 for at least one year.
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