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Mo. high court examines public defender caseloads

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Updated 9:18 a.m. Dec. 14:

As we mentioned Tuesday morning, the Missouri Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on whether the state's public defenders can turn away cases.

In July 2010 the public defender office in Christian County stopped taking new cases because the attorneys had reached their threshold. A judge appointed a public defender despite that and the public defender system took the matter to court. Stephen Hanlon argued before the high court today that the public defender system should be able to limit the number of cases it takes in order to ensure competent representation and ethical standards.

"We need a clear, unambiguous, strong direction holding ruling from this court today to the trial judges in this state that such an order, appointing a lawyer under those circumstances, exceeds their authority," Hanlon said.

Donovan Dobbs, an assistant prosecuting attorney for Christian County, argued before the court that judges have a constitutional duty to assign representation to indigent defendants. Dobbs also argued the protocol public defenders use for deciding caseload thresholds should be better vetted. The Missouri Supreme Court will rule at a later date.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.

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