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Private attorneys pledge to take on some cases from overworked St. Louis public defenders

Private attorneys pledge to take on some cases from overworked St. Louis public defenders

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JEFFERSON CITY • The state’s overburdened public defender system could soon see some relief, as private attorneys in the St. Louis area have committed to taking over some cases on a volunteer basis.

A new nonprofit group, the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel, has proposed a system where younger attorneys in the private sector try certain jury cases in the circuit courts of St. Louis and St. Louis County, where they can gain trial experience and reduce the caseloads for public defenders.

More than a dozen St. Louis area firms have pledged to provide volunteers, who will undergo training from public defenders in April and then begin assisting with their overwhelming workload.

Years of underfunding the public defender’s office has culminated in a lawsuit filed against the state by the ACLU of Missouri, who argues that Missouri has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately provide counsel to indigent defendants.

But the timing is just a coincidence, said Richard Scherrer, a former managing partner at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis. He helped found the coalition, which has been more than a year in the making.

“The coalition is not in the business of politics and arguing for funding,” Scherrer told the Post-Dispatch. “If there’s a way to help, the notion is the Missouri Bar should step up and help.”

Arguing for funding is left to Michael Barrett, the state’s top public defender, who recently asked a House budget panel for money to pay for private attorneys’ help with conflict cases, or cases where one crime is committed with multiple defendants who may be scattered statewide.

Someday, under the plan, private attorneys may be volunteering in their place.

In the meantime, Barrett said he and Gov. Eric Greitens — both named as defendants in the ACLU’s lawsuit — have never spoken.

His most recent attempt at initiating contact was in response to the governor approving paid parental leave for executive branch employees. Greitens asked other departments to follow suit, but Barrett said that would be impossible for his office.

“To be sure, you did not create this mess; however, it is now ours to address and I stand ready to assist you with that effort,” Barrett wrote in a letter to Greitens.

Greitens has proposed some additional funding for public defenders in next year’s budget, but hasn’t released the $3 million held by his predecessor, Gov. Jay Nixon, this year.

Regardless of outside help, lawmakers still have a duty to address the issue statewide, Barrett said.

“In no way is this meant to allow the state to get out of its obligation to provide counsel to poor people in Missouri,” said Barrett, who also helped create the coalition.

And to make that clear, the help has an expiration date; the firms only plan to provide volunteers for two years.

“We don’t want anyone to take this for granted,” Scherrer said. “For those charged with the responsibility of funding the public defenders, we want to make sure they continue to acknowledge that, and don’t think, ‘Oh, the Missouri Bar has stepped in, maybe the state of Missouri could do less.’”

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.

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