About a year ago lawyer Richard Scherrer called Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri Public Defender System, and asked how he could help increase representation for those in need.
Scherrer was starting to slow down his practice at Armstrong Teasdale and wanted to use his time to do something important to help the legal system. After some discussion, eventually they, and a few others, came up with what is now the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel.
The coalition, which plans to officially launch by May 1, enlists private law firms that pledge the help of their attorneys, mostly young associates, who will work on cases for the public defender’s office. In exchange, the associates will get courtroom experience that they might not have gotten at a bigger firm.
So far, 21 firms have signed up to participate.
“It’s gone from a theory to something well-organized and very tangible,” Scherrer said. “We have law firms that see the benefit of helping the public defender’s office and want their young lawyers to have an opportunity to have jury trial experience.”
A great need
A lack of funding for public defenders is not a problem unique to Missouri, but the state ranks at the bottom nationwide for public defender funding, advocates say.
The Missouri ACLU filed a suit March 9 against the state alleging that it has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide indigent defendants with meaningful representation.
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU Missouri, said Missouri ranks 49 out of 50 states in terms of funding per case for the public defender office. The national average is $18.41 per resident on public defense while Missouri’s is $6.20 per resident, he said.
“This is an issue in other parts of the country, and even probably reaches an unconstitutional level in other parts of the country, but Missouri is one of the very worst offenders when it comes to meeting obligations under the sixth amendment,” Rothert said.
That funding shortage has a real impact on the heavy caseload of the public defender’s office, which last year saw a 12 percent jump in cases to 82,000. Because funding hasn’t increased substantially for the office, public defenders can only depose 4 percent of cases and only 1 percent of cases go to trial, Barrett said.
“That is unacceptable,” he said.
In recent months, Barrett has made several efforts to call attention to the lack of support for the public defender system in Missouri, including an attempt to appoint then-Gov. Jay Nixon to a case after the governor cut $3 million of new funding for the system. Gov. Eric Greitens has restored $2 million of that funding in his proposed budget.
Barrett pointed to a 2014 audit that found the office would need an additional 250 attorneys to keep up with its caseload at the time. With its current caseload, that would mean an additional 330 lawyers are needed, he said.
While Barrett said he is humbled by the coalition and appreciative of the help, he said he doesn’t expect it to make an immediate significant reduction to the caseload in the St. Louis area, where the core of the program is getting started, or statewide.
“What it will reveal is the difference in outcome when you have a lawyers with the skills and dedication, like a public defender, that have time to work on a case,” he said.
An easy sell
To the founding members of the coalition, starting the program is more than a nicety, it’s an obligation.
“We’re not talking about what the state can do, but what the private bar can do,” Scherrer said. “We have an ethical requirement to make sure people have equal access to justice, and I think this lives it out.”
With 21 law firms on board, the program is already in good shape, but Gary Sarachan of Capes Sokol, another founding member of the coalition, is confident more firms will join.
Part of the reason for his confidence, he said, is that Scherrer, who he said is always thinking about others and not himself, is at the helm of the coalition. Plus, he can’t see a downside for firms.
“I could not figure out how a law firm could say no because it benefits the public defender’s office and it equally benefits their law firm,” he said. “That’s brilliant, and doable.”
Scherrer said more and more, young attorneys aren’t getting to experience jury trials early on in their careers. Having that experience is important to any trial lawyer and litigator, and can be a big boost for a resume.
“The sell is pretty easy,” he said of the program.
The goal is to start small, with 50 lawyers Scherrer said – although Sarachan said the coalition could easily garner 100. Each lawyer participating would take one to three cases, Barrett said.
The public defender’s office is prepared to offer the training multiple times a year, and could conduct it in other locations across the state as the program grows.
The appeal is mostly for younger lawyers, but Scherrer said there are also more experienced lawyers interested in philanthropy who will sign up as well.
The program will really get underway after training next month led by the public defender’s office and held at Armstrong Teasdale. Scherrer said there is room for 50 to 100 lawyers to attend the program that will be a course in criminal law for those who may not be familiar with the area.
Lawyers can even attend the training, which includes CLE credits, and decide later if they want to sign up for the program.
Individuals from the public defender’s office will be available to answer questions from lawyers in the program.
Barrett said the program has an “enormous potential to make an impact on caseloads” in the future.
To start, the program is slated to be in place for two years.
“We don’t want anyone to take us for granted,” Scherrer said.
If things go well, however, the hope is to continue the program beyond that timeframe.
Right now, the coalition is targeting large and midsized firms for their participation, but Sarachan said any size firm can sign up.
As it continues to grow, the founding members are hopeful that it could be a model for other states to use in the future. Other similar programs have been attempted before, but for one reason or another haven’t panned out. The group is hoping theirs could be the one to stick.
“I talked to the founding members, and they all have great legacies, but there was a general feeling in talking about the program initially that this is something they want to be involved in because they want their legacy to be working for systematic justice,” Scherrer said.