Monday, March 30, 2020

Massachusetts Upholds Public Defender Ability To Limit Caseload

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has held that an order to provide appointed counsel after a 

Due to the volume of additional cases, the attorney in charge of the Springfield PDD office and CPCS's deputy chief counsel determined in June 2019 that the staff attorneys in the Springfield PDD office had exceeded their caseload capacity and they could not provide effective assistance to any additional clients. Accordingly, on June 11, the attorney in charge informed the First Justice of the Springfield District Court that CPCS staff attorneys in the Springfield PDD office could not handle any more duty days in that court.

In response, the district court ordered that the public defender continue to accept appointments.

The court here

We recognize that the First Justice was taking emergency action that he deemed necessary under the circumstances to protect indigent defendants' constitutional rights to counsel and to avoid halting proceedings in new criminal cases in the Springfield District Court. We conclude, however, that the June 12 order and the court's subsequent appointments of CPCS staff attorneys in the Springfield PDD office under that order were invalid. The June 12 order and subsequent appointments of CPCS staff attorneys improperly infringed upon CPCS's statutory authority to control assignments and to limit caseloads for its staff attorneys under G. L. c. 211D because the order and the appointments overrode CPCS's determination that the staff attorneys in its Springfield office had already reached their caseload capacity and could not accept any more cases, without any contrary findings by the court that put in doubt the validity of that determination. We also note our concern that, to the extent such an order may require CPCS staff attorneys to accept more appointments than they can reasonably handle, it risks interfering with their ethical obligations under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing their clients, and thereby threatens to undermine the very right to counsel that the order seeks to protect.


The case is remanded to the county court to determine whether a hearing is required concerning the current availability of defense counsel to represent indigent defendants in Hampden  County and whether the Lavallee protocol imposed by the single justice is still required.

(Mike Frisch )

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