ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri and its governor cannot be sued over the state’s underfunded and understaffed public defender system, a federal appeals court has ruled.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday said the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity means the state can’t commit a legal wrong and cannot be sued unless the legislature makes exceptions in state law, KCUR reported .
American Civil Liberties Union-Missouri filed the class action lawsuit in 2017. The organization argued the governor and state have ignored their constitutional obligation to provide meaningful legal representation to indigent clients by not providing enough funds to address chronic underfunding and understaffing in the public defender system . ACLU-Missouri argues in the lawsuit that Mississippi is the only state to allocate less than the $355 per case that Missouri spends for its indigent defense budget.
The lawsuit will continue against the head of the public defender system, Michael Barrett, and the public defender commission.
The decision, written by Judge Duane Benton, does not address the merits of the lawsuit. But the ruling means the legislature can’t be forced to appropriate more money to the system.
“It would be easier if the state itself were a defendant,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of ACLU-Missouri.
Rothert said if the ACLU prevails against the other defendants, the court could order the state to reduce public defenders’ caseloads, or prosecutors could use their discretion to not bring charges for certain crimes. Or defendants who aren’t considered dangerous could be released on bail and put on a waiting list for public defenders rather than staying in jail while awaiting trial.
“So there are numerous ways to solve this problem,” Rothert said. “The easiest way, I think, was to give more money so the defender’s office could hire more lawyers. But there are other ways that might even be better for justice overall.”
The lawsuit seeks class-action status to cover all indigent defendants in Missouri charged with crimes that carry prison sentences. Missouri’s public defenders typically handle 80,000 cases a year, so the potential class could be in the tens of thousands of individuals.
When the lawsuit was filed, Missouri had 370 public defenders statewide. Studies have said Missouri’s system should have nearly twice that many public defenders to meet standards set by the American Bar Association for adequate representation of clients.