By Genevieve Citrin Ray*
Last year, Missouri gained the national spotlight when the director of the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office, Michael Barrett, assigned Governor Jay Nixon a criminal case. While Nixon did not take up the case, with media attention, Barrett underscored major challenges Missouri’s indigent defense system faces. Barrett remains committed to upholding the constitutional right to counsel and sought a different strategy this year, spearheading the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel with seven partners from top law firms in St. Louis.
The Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel is a public-private partnership between the public defender’s office and private law firms. In exchange for courtroom experience, young associates at big law firms represent clients of the public defender’s office under the mentorship and guidance of public defenders to alleviate some caseload pressures and increase awareness about the burdens Missouri public defenders face.
The idea for this coalition emerged roughly a year and a half ago in a meeting between Barrett and Scherrer. Scherrer spoke of young lawyers who are thrown into court without ever having courtroom experience at a high price to clients, which can weaken the legitimacy of the profession. Barrett saw an opportunity and seized it. The two spoke of creating a quid pro quo initiative, where young lawyers gain courtroom experience and public defenders can gain some relief in their caseloads as well as heightened attention to budgetary constraints they face.
The Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel held its inaugural training in April 2017. Over 100 attorneys from 22 law firms participated and took on roughly 70 cases. While this helps, it is a drop in the bucket for the more than 80,000 cases the public defender’s office sees in a year. More importantly, though, as Barrett stated in a phone interview, “these attorneys hold political clout with the powers that be and are able to shine light on the resource deficiency in the public defender’s office.” It is this mentality that Barrett is harnessing to find an even greater value to the public defender’s office with this new partnership. The training received significant press and a great response from participating law firms. The next training is scheduled for October 2017.
While Barrett is thrilled about the potential this new initiative has, not all members of the public defender community share his excitement. Barrett stated in a phone interview that some members of the public defense community worry that this partnership will allow governments to shirk their financial responsibilities to public defense as they see law firms stepping in to provide counsel. Barrett, however, does not see this. The Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel oversees this partnership at no cost and folds in two years. Accordingly, the Missouri legislature will need to provide additional funds to maintain the same level of representation. As stated, Barrett sees law firms as partners and key assets to underscoring the crisis in indigent defense and eventually getting much needed funding from the legislature. This will only be possible, though, if Barrett proves to be more valuable to the law firms than the other way around, which he intends to do.
Continuing to utilize unusual approaches, Barrett is turning to politics to achieve change. The goal of this initiative is to raise awareness about the lack of funding for public defense and lack of access to justice for poor people in the criminal justice system whose liberties are at stake. Courts are in a unique position and should be at the center of this fight. In order to achieve change, they must be called on it and must create caseload standards. Barrett shared that he is losing public defenders at his office because they are resigning due to a fear they will lose their law licenses because they are taking way too many cases that prohibit them from performing their job within ethical professional standards. The only way to change this is to set caseload standards and change the culture surrounding public defense. The courts are the center of this change.
*The writer is the Project Director of the Right to Counsel National Campaign and Senior Research Associate at American University's Justice Programs Office