Saint Louis University School of Law celebrated the annual Constitution Day (Sept. 17) with two prestigious events.
The first on Sept. 18, titled “The Public Defender Crisis” and attended by approximately 120 students, featured St. Louis public defender Mary Fox and ACLU-Missouri legal director Tony Rothert (Law ’96, Grad ’93). They discussed the systemic failure across the country and particularly in St. Louis to uphold indigent defendants’ constitutional rights to effective assistance of counsel and a speedy trial.
“The Public Defender’s Office in the City of St. Louis is the most successful criminal defense firm in the city,” Fox said. “We are attorneys who want to change the system, but we’re stuck in this mess created by a government that has not adequately funded the system in 20 years.”
“Lots of people including the ACLU and other organizations have been watching the Missouri Public Defender System for years, watching it turn from just bad into a crisis,” he said. “There are 376 attorneys, with 100,000 cases a year. … There are nationally recognized numbers of what an appropriate caseload should be, and most offices are over 200 percent capacity the maximum benchmark of what the ABA rules say they should be doing.”
Rothert suggested alternative solutions to funding issues, such as reducing charges brought for marijuana possession – and thereby reducing the need for public defenders – or spending less state money on building prisons and reallocating that money toward public defenders.
The second event, sponsored by the SLU LAW American Constitution Society, took a different approach and featured another SLU LAW alumnus, Judge Henry Autrey (’77), a federal judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri who began his career as a prosecutor.
“What does the Constitution mean to a third- or fourth-generation child of slavery?” Autrey asked. His great, great-grandmother began her life as a slave and ended her life as a free person. “That really wasn’t that long ago. And the Constitution provides a framework. My grandmother was a victim, if you will, of the words of Justice (Roger) Taney [who delivered the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford].”
Autrey discussed his own experiences of living under Jim Crow laws as a child and seeing his father’s fury at being treated as inferior despite having equal rights under the Constitution. His parents’ insistence in the values of that document helped inspire him to want to become a lawyer and a judge.
“[After law school] I chose to work in the prosecutor’s office, which was not looked upon favorably by members of the community: prosecutors who happened to be black were seen by many as oppressors,” Autrey said. “My perspective was, in order to effectively ensure that not only the victims would be treated fairly but the defendants would be treated fairly, the way to do that was to be a prosecutor inside the system. You can’t do that from outside because you’re an observer.
“Prosecutors hold the key,” he continued. “Prosecutors determine what evidence is going to be brought, what evidence is going to be disclosed to the defense. More importantly the prosecutor decides who’s going to get charged. That’s critical. And to do that you have to have a firm feel of and be firmly grounded in the Constitution. … Every day we wake up, we do our thing – go to class, study go to work, go shopping – and it’s because of our Constitution. Those 10 amendments – the Bill of Rights – ensure we’re able to do that.”