Mary Fox stood before a room full of mostly law-school grads last week to make her case.
“Public defenders are typically warriors, activists or caretakers, and often some of each of those characteristics,” Fox, the director of the state’s public defender system, told them.
“As warriors, we are the attorneys who are in court every day defending our clients, defending our constitution and ensuring that our rights continue to exist not only for our clients, but also for ourselves.”
Delaney Catlettstout, a recent graduate of University of Missouri School of Law, was captivated by the idea of being a “warrior” in her community. It was the message that stood out to her from the four-hour day of introductions and interviews.
“It was persuasive,” Catlettstout said.
It needed to be. Fox and her team are pushing hard to fill 53 new positions, which will be funded if the governor signs off on the $3.6 million in new funding lawmakers included in the state budget.
The window to meet their goal is closing.
There are more than 1,000 people on the Missouri Public Defender System’s waitlist for an attorney, as of May 28. According to a 2020 class-action lawsuit filed against the system, three indigent defendants have been in pretrial detention and on a waitlist for over two years.
A circuit judge found the public defenders’ waitlists unconstitutional earlier this year, but the decision was put on pause to allow state legislators to pass necessary funding to hire more attorneys.
Fox said her team is busy recruiting new law grads and attorneys with a goal of clearing the waitlist by Jan. 1. But attorney Amy Breihan, co-counsel on the 2020 lawsuit against the public defender system, is skeptical that the money allocated for new hires will be enough to keep the waitlist at bay.
“We all expect, sadly, the criminal legal system to return to sort of business as usual, as COVID gets under control,” said Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri office. “With that, there is an anticipation that an increasing number of individuals will be arrested and charged and qualify for public defender services.”
In 2017, the Supreme Court found that public defenders can lose their law licenses if they get overloaded with cases and neglect clients. The Missouri Supreme Court put Karl Hinkebein, a veteran public defender who had been severely ill, on probation for a year for failing to adequately represent several clients.
That same year the high court also found that if a judge doesn’t grant a public defender permission to stop taking on more cases, the public defender could be held in contempt and jailed if they refuse to do so.
Public defenders said they had few options: they could lose their licenses if they accepted too many cases, but they could land in jail if they refuse to take on more cases.
Some district defenders, or leaders at the system’s 44 districts, began forming waitlists as a temporary solution to the challenges. But by the summer of 2019, there were about 4,300 people statewide on waitlists. To alleviate this, a federal judge issued an order in July 2019 directing district defenders to inform their local circuit courts so judges could potentially assign the cases to private attorneys or dismiss the charges against some defendants.
By the time Breihan, the ACLU of Missouri and a team of other attorneys filed their most recent lawsuit against the Missouri Public Defender System in February 2020, there were about 4,600 people on the lists.
In March, Phelps County Judge William Hickle deemed the waitlists unconstitutional.
“The State violates the Sixth Amendment (and the Missouri Constitution equivalent in Article I) by charging an indigent defendant with a crime in which the State seeks the defendant’s incarceration, and then delaying for weeks, months, and even more than a year before furnishing the defendant with an attorney,” Hickle wrote.
That put pressure on the legislators this past session, and they added $3.6 million to the public defender system’s budget. There is a status hearing with the judge on July 1 — the start of the new budget year — to see what happens next in the case.
Fox said the prospect of hiring more attorneys has been a morale boost for her team.
“For years, we focused on the fact that we’ve had too many cases,” Fox said. “What we really want to focus on now is that we have excellent attorneys, who provide very good representation for our clients.”
‘Never lost hope’
Even as a young recruit looking from the outside in, Catlettstout could feel that sense of “relief” among current public defenders at the recruitment event last week. It was the Missouri Public Defender System’s first “Attorney Career Fair” ever — and quite a moment for a system that has been underfunded and overworked for decades.
All her life, Catlettstout has heard stories about what it’s like to be a public defender. Her father, Don Catlett, entered the public defender system out of law school and stayed until he retired in 2018. He’s handled some high-profile murder cases that still raise eyebrows — but she’s adamant that she wants to make her own way and establish her own name.
Although he was “hands off” in her decision to apply for a spot, they did talk through the pros and cons of entering a system that has been woefully underfunded for a long time. But the fact is, she knows there are “really great people in the system” and that makes a difference in her choice.
“Coming out of law school and not having a family yet, I have the time to commit to this cause and really work on that life-work balance,” she said. “People who can make that commitment should.”
As part of the career day, she was interviewed by district defenders from six different counties. And she asked them directly about what the caseload will be like and what supports are in place for incoming attorneys. They assured her that recruits would start off on low-level cases to get their “feet wet.”
Catlettstout has a better understanding than many about what she’s getting into. She’s also seen how important it is to have steadfast dedication not only to the work, but also to the community that she will serve.
“Our role in criminal justice reform is at every level,” she said.
And while her father faced many challenges in his long career, she said it’s inspiring that, “he never lost hope.”