Matthew Mueller had been working for the Missouri State Public Defender System for four years when Michael Barrett, former director of the system, approached him with a vision.
Barrett proposed that Mueller become bond counsel for the public defender system, a position that didn’t yet exist, Mueller said.
“So it was sort of [Barrett’s] brainchild to create a position with the purpose of engaging in impact litigation on various issues,” he said.
Mueller served as the defender system’s senior bond litigation counsel from November 2017 through December 2019. During that time, he took two cases aimed at ending the practice of jail board bills to the Missouri Supreme Court.
In March 2019, he won a landmark ruling that prevents state courts from making criminal defendants pay directly for the costs of their incarceration. As a result, Missourians no longer can be jailed or threatened with jail for not paying those bills.
When Mueller took on the role of litigation counsel, he went to counties near Kansas City to make bond-reduction arguments in various criminal cases, he said.
“Then I saw that I had the opportunity to do a little more,” he said. “I wanted to litigate issues on appeal, and I wanted to make a difference through case law.”
Mueller said he began identifying common issues affecting many of the defender system’s clients, including the reasons why they were in jail and why they were being brought back to court years after their cases had ended.
“A lot of the issues our clients face are a result of their indigency . . . and as a result, we had courts punishing people for this,” he said. “And by punish, I mean bring them into court, threaten them with jail and sometimes even jail them for issues solely related to money.”
Mueller began litigating cases around the board-bill issue, especially in rural counties where defendants sat in jail for long periods because they couldn’t afford the cash bond they needed to pay to go free until trial. Once they had been found guilty or pleaded guilty, courts ordered them to pay a daily fee for each day they’d been in jail; Mueller said those fees were roughly $50 a day.
In many cases, courts sent clients back to jail because they were unable to pay the fees, causing them to rack up new jail debt and creating an endless cycle.
“I kind of had the luxury of identifying cases that were good for making these sorts of challenges,” Mueller said.
He litigated these issues in several cases, aiming to have similar cases reach all three Missouri appellate courts in an effort to bring about a ruling that would stop the board-bill practice. “That’s something I think most lawyers don’t have the opportunity to do,” he said.
Eventually, two of those cases made their way to the Missouri Supreme Court, and the state Attorney General’s Office filed an amicus brief in support of the public defender’s position on jail board bills.
“That was very exciting when that happened. We all at the public defender’s office were very surprised and very happy that they did that,” Mueller said, noting that the two offices are seldom on the same side.
Mueller argued those cases in February 2019. The following month, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion agreeing with his argument against board bills.
In December, Mueller left the state public defender system to open his own firm in St. Louis — MGM Law — but he said he intends to continue his appellate and impact casework.