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Public Service: Susan W. McGraugh

Saint Louis University School of Law

A train route through some of Chicago’s poorest housing projects helped Susan McGraugh to choose the path she’s on today. McGraugh grew up in the suburban village of River Forest, Illinois, but in high school she started taking the train to her summer job at the Chicago Board of Trade.mcgraugh-susan

“I remember the first time I saw buildings that looked like they were bombed out,” McGraugh said. “There was soot above all the windows and clotheslines, and it had never occurred to me that I lived that close to people in poverty.”

Those observations sparked an interest in social justice that flourished when she landed at Washington University School of Law. Studying under Professor Frank Miller, she realized that criminal law was her calling.

Today, McGraugh, too, is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and supervises the school’s criminal-defense clinic. The clinic provides legal services with a focus on aiding clients who have mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities. With social worker Lauren Choate, McGraugh developed the clinic after she and her students observed that many defendants in misdemeanor court had mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities.

“When people who have serious mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities get locked up on charges, it’s almost impossible for them to access legal services from the jail,” McGraugh said.

“They don’t know how to fill out the public-defender form or put family members on the visit list for the jail, much less hire a private attorney to represent their case.”

By interceding when those defendants were in the jail, McGraugh and her students found they often could connect people with resources they needed to be successful.

“For most people who come into contact with the law who have serious mental illness, their criminal case is not their biggest problem,” McGraugh said. “Our goal is to make it so no one comes back into the system.”

McGraugh started her career at a small criminal-defense firm before moving to the Public Defender’s Office in St. Louis. Public defense has never been a ticket to riches, but the office at the time faced fewer funding changes than it does today, she said, and the mission shared by those in the office created camaraderie.

Up-and-coming attorneys should consider public-service work to learn the criminal-justice system, McGraugh advises. Working for the system offers insight and hands-on experience with cases they might not get at a private firm. And despite the short resources, the sense of community makes the job worthwhile, McGraugh said.

“You see the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.

McGraugh has taught at SLU since 2003, and she continues to handle pro bono cases. Recently, she began representing a member of the Lakota Tribe who served as a water protector on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. In 2016, protestors converged on the reservation to oppose an oil pipeline they believed would threaten the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply. Many protesters were arrested and face state and federal charges related to the action.

The case raises similar issues to those McGraugh and her students encountered while representing activists who were arrested for protesting civil-rights violations in Ferguson.

“It’s a different spot but the same poverty,” McGraugh said.

To unwind, McGraugh reads and spends time with her dogs and her husband, St. Louis Circuit Judge Christopher McGraugh. But her proudest moments come when she observes her students in the courtroom, whether they’re on the side of the prosecution or the defense.

“Any day I could be there, and there will be three or four former SLU students in there fighting the good fight,” McGraugh said.

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