St. Louis County Circuit Court
105 South Central Avenue
Clayton, Missouri 63105
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Regional Bar Associations, Prosecuting Attorney Pledge Support for Court’s Public Defender Wait List Initiative
Private Attorney Appointments, Video Training to Begin Soon
CLAYTON, MO – January 23, 2020 – In remarks given at the St. Louis County Courthouse Monday, Presiding Judge Gloria C. Reno praised the leaders of regional bar associations, state public defenders and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell for their support of a court initiative deploying private attorneys to represent indigent defendants on a wait list for public defenders.
In a show of solidarity with the court, leadership of the Mound City Bar Association, Women Lawyers’ Association, St. Louis County Bar, Lawyers Association of St. Louis, Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, Hispanic Bar Association and Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel expressed their willingness to participate in the initiative.
“We are enormously indebted to the members of our local bar associations for their leadership and support in ensuring access to justice for indigent defendants,” Judge Reno said. “The collaboration among public and private entities is essential to meeting this long-standing challenge to our underfunded criminal justice system. The judges of the 21st Judicial Circuit stand with their colleagues, the attorneys of St. Louis County, who swore a professional oath to practice law with consideration for the defenseless.”
The workload of Missouri public defenders had been under heightened scrutiny since a 2017 Missouri Supreme Court decision to place a veteran public defender in Columbia on probation for violating rules of professional conduct regarding diligence and client communication.
The decision followed numerous high-profile battles over state funding for the legal defense of those too poor to hire their own lawyers. In some parts of the state, public defenders repeatedly refused to accept new cases. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit claiming the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund indigent defense.
Attorneys in the St. Louis County public defender office in St. Louis County face a similar dilemma, putting them at risk of discipline for taking on excessive caseloads they can neither refuse nor handle adequately. Stephen Reynolds, District Defender of the St. Louis Trial Office of the Missouri State Public Defender, filed a motion last October in St. Louis County Circuit Court requesting the establishment of a wait list of defendants who qualify for public defender services. Judge Reno issued an administrative order establishing the wait list on January 2, 2020, and authorized the appointment of private attorneys to represent certain types of lower-level felony clients.
Private attorneys will be selected at random by the court from a list of more than 7,000 licensed attorneys in St. Louis County to take cases on the wait list. Those who have not practiced criminal law will be provided video training by current public defenders. The videos will be available on the St. Louis County Courts website, www.stlcountycourts.com, in the coming weeks. Depending on the volume of cases on the public defender wait list, private attorneys are not likely to be appointed to handle a case more often than once every few years, Judge Reno said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell called the initiative a necessary stop-gap measure. Bell’s predecessor, Robert McCulloch, opposed the creation of the public defender wait list and took legal action in 2018 to block its implementation.
“The court appointment of private attorneys to represent criminal defendants is a very important step in ensuring defendants receive their constitutionally protected right of attorney representation,” Bell said. “While this may not be the best solution for this issue, which would simply be the state fully funding the public defender's offices so they may better represent defendants, it is certainly a much needed effort and I commend the courts for mandating this change. We will continue to vigorously prosecute serious crimes in St. Louis County and are confident each defendant will be properly represented.”
Richard Scherer, retired Armstrong Teasdale attorney and founder of the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel in 2017, said the initiative will give young attorneys at large law firms opportunities to obtain much-needed trial experience.
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