Some assistant public defenders in Missouri join the office fresh out of law school, learn the ropes and then depart forever to private practice, where caseloads can be less grueling and the pay potentially far higher.
Two Columbia lawyers and longtime friends, Kathryn Benson and George Batek, followed this trajectory, but only to a point: Each served as public defenders early in their careers, then launched their own small criminal-defense firm for 14 years.
Yet within the past month, they returned to serve the state. Benson became District Defender and George Batek a Senior Public Defender in the Fulton trial office, which covers Callaway, Audrain and Montgomery Counties.
It’s a challenging time to be a public defender, between stagnant funding and concerns about disciplinary action against those who fear they’ve been assigned too many indigent clients to represent them properly. So why did these two decide to return?
Aside from practical and business considerations, Benson is driven by the same hunger for justice she felt when she got arrested 30 years ago on the University of Missouri campus for protesting South African apartheid. For her, public defense feels “like you’re fighting every player in the system to get justice for an indigent client. You’ve got to have people who care about fighting that fight.”
As for Batek, who was born in Missouri but spent much of his childhood in South America, it’s about paying a debt.
“When I came here, I wasn’t that wealthy,” he said, but the system “helped with student loans and provided assistance. America has done very well for me. I feel like I owe something back, and this is where my skills lie at this point. It’s where I can be of most use.”
As an undergraduate, Benson became a major player in the campus movement to pressure the university to divest from South African businesses. To apply that pressure, students built a shantytown on the quad. Benson was among the many students arrested for this in February 1987, and she saw first-hand how attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union defended her and her colleagues.
“I was so impressed,” she said. “It made me very interested in going to law school.” So she did.
While at Mizzou Law, she met George Batek. Batek had been born there in Columbia to a Peruvian father and a mother from Fulton, but as a child he spent eight years in Peru and another eight in Bolivia. He returned to the United States to live with his grandparents and attend Fulton High School, then Mizzou.
“Talk about a culture shock,” he said. At Mizzou, he met Sharon, the woman who has become his wife. Batek also had a college roommate, who ended up marrying his law-school classmate, Kathryn Benson.
After law school, Benson and Batek each spent about 10 years working in the Missouri Public Defender System. They became good friends working together briefly in the Boone County office. Their paths diverged, but they both acquired experience that they said has proved invaluable: learning how to deal with clients at low points in their lives, how to prepare and litigate cases, how to interact with judges and observe courtroom decorum.
“They invested in me, and everybody was really supportive,” Batek said. “I have always felt like I owed them, despite the tough work that it was.”
In 2004, Batek and Benson decided to launch their own firm, Batek & Benson, in Columbia. One fruitful source of private clients was the Spanish-speaking community there in town, which Batek served extensively. But as time went on, the pair began taking on more and more contract cases from their former employer, the public defender’s office. It reached the point where contract cases made up the bulk of their work.
When they found out about the two openings at the Fulton office, they got to talking. There were advantages to working directly for the state: retirement pensions, health insurance, freedom from having to press clients for payment. They put out feelers, arranged a meeting and accepted the offers. To wind down their practice, they brought many of their contract cases with them.
Benson, who began on Aug. 1, said things feel different this time around. One example is treatment from the bench.
“Judges these days really respect the public-defender system and really are starting to understand the caseload crisis better,” she noted.
Batek, who began on Aug. 28, confirms that the caseload is intense, but that’s exactly why he and Benson were hired.
“They’re not hiring us over there just because of our good looks,” he said. “They’re looking for people to move in and move fast. We’ve got the skills to do that. And we’re looking forward to challenge of it.”