Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt was in Kansas City on May 20 to salute the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel, an organization that helps take the weight off the state’s public-defender system.

Schmitt, echoing his commencement address at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law the prior weekend, praised the volunteerism and civic engagement the coalition engenders.

“At the heart of it is people of goodwill agreeing that we need more people to dedicate their time to this kind of service,” Schmitt said.

At the same time, Schmitt’s office is pushing back against a tentative settlement seeking to reform the Missouri State Public Defender System’s caseload.

In an interview, Schmitt said the public has an interest in that proposed consent judgment that is different from the “relatively aligned” views of the defender system and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU sued the defender system to force caseload reforms that public defenders for years have argued are needed.

“Our intention is to intervene to have those arguments fleshed out a little bit so the court has a full view of the issues,” Schmitt said. “The impact of that settlement would be far-reaching.”

Among other things, the settlement calls for a caseload standard based on a 2,080-hour work-year. Missouri Public Defender Michael Barrett and the ACLU of Missouri’s legal director, Tony Rothert, say the settlement wouldn’t limit defenders to a 40-hour week and criticized the attorney general’s office for trying to intervene after winning the dismissal of other state entities from the case on immunity grounds. The settlement still needs approval from a federal judge.

Schmitt’s comments came at a reception held by the Shook, Hardy & Bacon law firm for the Coalition for the Right to Counsel, which takes case assignments that otherwise would go to public defenders, in part to give courtroom experience to young attorneys in private practice.

“If they were brain surgeons, you’d wonder when they were going to get an opportunity to do a brain surgery,” said Richard Scherrer, the co-founder of the coalition.

Shook’s chair, Madeleine McDonough, said the firm has taken on 58 cases since October 2017, with 48 attorneys having provided a combined 3641.4 hours of service.

“In some ways it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what the [public defender’s] caseload really is,” McDonough said. “They are overworked, underpaid, overwhelmed.”

By Scott Lauck | Missouri Lawyers Weekly