Private law firms offer to help public defenders

For the next two years, Missouri's public defenders could be getting some help from private practice lawyers.

The Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel (MCRC) announced its creation in a news release Monday, noting it's "believed to be the only U.S. nonprofit organization of its kind."

The coalition "facilitates and encourages law firms to volunteer their attorneys to represent public defender clients, thus easing the system's difficult caseload," according to the news release.

"It will be a statewide effort or, at least, that's our hope," Richard Scherrer, of the Armstrong Teasdale law firm and one of the coalition's chief organizers, told the News Tribune on Monday. "We are starting in the St. Louis area, with the intent to move to Kansas City. What we hope to do, if this program is successful, is reach out to the other areas (of the state)."

Missouri's public defender system began in 1972 as the state's response to a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling the federal Constitution's 6th Amendment right to counsel includes poor people who can't pay for their own attorney.

In Missouri, the public defender's office is appointed to a criminal case only when there's a possibility of a jail or prison sentence and the defendant can't afford to hire a lawyer. Historically, the system's attorneys have had a large caseload and constant turnover.

Gary Sarachan, a founding coalition member and general counsel of the Capes, Sokol, Goodman & Sarachan law firm, said public defender attorneys are overworked and underpaid.

"They are the firefighters of the legal profession," he said. "It's our duty and honor to create a 'volunteer brigade' that chips in to take on these important cases."

The coalition already has 22 law firms agreeing to participate, including several of the state's largest and some with offices in Jefferson City.

The law firms with Mid-Missouri offices include Armstrong Teasdale; Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch; Husch Blackwell; and Polsinelli.

State Public Defender Michael Barrett supports the idea.

"There is enormous potential for the coalition to make an impact," he said in the coalition's news release. 'There's a constitutional guarantee that must be upheld, and I am absolutely humbled by how the bar has stepped up in a major way."

Although just announced to the public this week, the coalition has been forming since before the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit this month accusing the state government of failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide an adequate public defender system.

"It is admirable that Missouri's private bar is pitching in, but their assistance is a drop in the proverbial bucket needed to get us out of this constitutional crisis that has been created over decades," Anthony Rothert, ACLU-Missouri's legal director, told the News Tribune.

Scherrer agreed.

"This is not designed to make the obligations of those who have those duties any less," he said. "I think there are challenges in the public defender system, and this will not result in solving those."

Scherrer noted the coalition is offering the program only "for two years, because we don't want anyone to take for granted what we're doing and use that as a substitution for some of the issues which might be out there."

After the 1965 Supreme Court ruling, the state's first efforts involved getting private practice lawyers - who often had no criminal law experience - to provide the defense.

But there were complaints that process didn't provide adequate legal services.

Scherrer said the coalition proposal avoids that problem, since the public defender system will provide the volunteer lawyers with training before they're assigned to cases, and the volunteers "will have, as they would with any case, the supervision of the senior lawyers within that firm," as well as the ability to call the public defender's offices in St. Louis City or County for advice.

"Missouri's prosecutors welcome this project that will utilize private attorneys to perform public defender services," Christian County Prosecutor Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said Monday. "We have historically supported creative ways to improve efficiencies in the public defender system. We look forward to continuing this dialogue with stakeholders such as the public defender, the Missouri Bar and the General Assembly."

The coalition noted it also has support from Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge and from Missouri Bar President Dana Tippin Cutler of Kansas City.

"This program is a win-win in that it provides training and experience to new lawyers while helping raise awareness of the overwhelming caseloads our public defenders handle," Cutler wrote.

In her endorsement letter, Breckenridge wrote: "This laudable initiative will be of invaluable assistance to full-time assistant public defenders. The (Supreme) Court encourages Missouri firms and their lawyers to participate in this program."

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