It can be difficult to admit failure. It can be even more difficult when that failure affects human lives.
However, Missouri public defenders are doing just that, Laura O’Sullivan, an assistant public defender with the state of Missouri, told more than 100 attorneys Thursday as she spoke at the Bob Chaloupka Trial Skills Seminar in Scottsbluff.
The public defender system in Missouri isn’t the only public defense system in the United States with large caseloads. It’s endemic in the justice system — understaffed and underfunded public defender offices are struggling to keep up with case loads. However, as one of O’Sullivan’s colleagues learned after being disciplined by the state judicial system, they are bound by the same ethical guidelines as other attorneys.
“The first step is to admit that there is a problem,” O’Sullivan said.
And, its important to ensure that people are getting adequate representation, from attorneys being able to view all evidence to throughly investigating a case, because of the serious consequences that being convicted of a felony can have on a person. Being convicted of a felony has great impact, O’Sullivan said, from making it harder to get housing, a college education and even benefits.
Or, tragically, a person is convicted and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t even commit.
“We are trying to make sure the courts are aware, as it is happening, of our daily challenges in meeting the needs of so many people,” she said. “...It’s become necessary for each and every attorney in our office to be fighting that war as well.”
Every day, public defenders are having to go through large caseloads and decide which of the cases are the most important. In Missouri, the media and the ACLU have called the impact on the justice system a crisis. The question, O’Sullivan said, when you have 70 cases, six of which are murder cases, becomes “Who should I not prepare for?” However, judges have a different take — with one judge telling O’Sullivan as she admitted she had a large caseload and hadn’t had enough time to prepare for all her cases, and especially the one that was before that judge.
The strategy of admitting that O’Sullivan hadn’t had enough time to prepare is one of the steps the Missouri state public defender’s office has employed to try to address the issue. It tried for years to get more funding for attorneys, but failed. The other has been to share its woes with the media, which has covered the issues including the Kansas City Star. The issue will also be a new podcast that will be aired called “Broken.”
Most people who have not experienced the justice system aren’t aware of the issues, and O’Sullivan said she believes that taxpayers care about the issue. Not only because they are paying for people who are in prison, but because most people don’t want to see innocent people convicted of a crime.
“We have created an illusion of effective representation,” O’Sullivan said. “In my opinion, it is time to break that illusion. It’s time to bring it to the light.”
Bringing issues like inadequate representation affecting the criminal and civil trial systems is among the goals of the Bob Chaloupka Trial Skills Seminar in Scottsbluff. The seminar is in its eighth year and became as a way for attorney Maren Chaloupka to honor her father.
“I was looking for a way (to honor him) that would be meaningful, that would be about who he was,” she said. “What mattered to him was he loved his work, he loved serving his clients, he loved the challenges that come in difficult cases and trying to be someone who could give his clients hope and give them some dignity back. I wanted to put together a program for lawyers that encourages other lawyers to aspire for those same qualities.”
Topics during this year’s seminar included the opiod epidemic and its effects in all areas of the judicial system to civil topics such as arguing for damages. Chaloupka said she has invited lawyers and judges who she believes honor her father’s qualities in their own work. She said she pays attention to legal issues that affect clients and that attorneys are grappling with.
Attorneys attending the seminar traveled from not only Nebraska, but South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and as far as California. This year, law students also participated, including students from the Rural Law Opportunities Program at Chadron State.
“To see seven RLOP students was really exciting,” Chaloupka said. “I hope they enjoyed it.”
She said she also hopes her dad would be pleased with the seminar and its work since it began. He enjoyed fellowship with other professionals “trying to do hard work better.” I think he would have greatly enjoyed the fellowship, he would have enjoyed the creativity he would hear from the other trial attorneys that are speaking here, and the examples of their courage and their willingness to take a stand.”