Hanlon joined the SLU LAW faculty as a professor of practice in spring 2014 after
retiring as a partner at Holland & Knight, where he ran the largest full-time private
practice pro bono department in the country for 23 years.
SLU LAW professors of practice have retired from practice and have significant expertise
in their respective fields to offer students.
While on campus, Hanlon worked closely with the Legal Clinics’ students and faculty,
who helped him with research for state Supreme Court cases. He taught a course dubbed
“Hanlon & Associates,” which he operated like a small law firm. “We prepared a motion
[for public defenders] to refuse additional cases – I still use that document that
our students generated in my practice now.”
Along with clinic faculty, he also met with St. Louis municipal court judges to instigate
court reform (notably before the death of Michael Brown and the ensuing attention
on municipal court practices in the region).
Today, Hanlon is back in Washington, D.C., with most of his time taken up by his role
at the NAPD, but he continues to advise and mentor SLU LAW students, who benefit from
his years of litigation experience. Having “had the great fortune to work with many
of America’s greatest civil rights lawyers,” he also seeks to bring prestigious speakers
from around the country to the law school, bolstering its reputation on a national
level. Recently, he has been responsible for bringing renowned scholars Norman Lefstein,
Stephen B. Bright, Jonathan Rapping and Jim Sandman to Scott Hall for engaging keynote
lectures open to the St. Louis legal community.
The Saint Louis Brief caught up with Hanlon to discuss his work at the NAPD, where he continues to focus
on the issue of public defenders’ excessive workloads, the no. 1 problem in indigent
Founded in 2013, the NAPD already has more than 15,000 public defender members from
across the country, and according to Hanlon, they are “mad as hell.”
“It’s a truism,” Hanlon says. “It’s generally known and accepted that public defenders
have way too many cases. What we’ve come to realize is that we are operating a systemically
unethical and unconstitutional criminal justice system – and everybody knows that.
The judges know it. The state bar associations know it. The prosecutors know it. And
this is a horrible legacy for my generation of lawyers. It’s a horrible indictment
of our profession. And our goal has been and continues to be to stop it.”
We are operating a systemically unethical and unconstitutional criminal justice system
– and everybody knows that."
Stephen F. Hanlon, J.D.
Hanlon was featured in a recent “60 Minutes” segment with Anderson Cooper, who asked a group of nine current and former New Orleans public
defenders whether any of them believed their lack of time to devote to a case had
landed an innocent client in jail. Every lawyer raised their hands.
“If obstetricians had five times as much work as they could handle competently, if
airline pilots had five times as much work as they could handle competently, terrible
things would happen,” Hanlon says. “Public defenders have people’s lives in their
hands, they have people’s liberty in their hands, they have their whole future in
Hanlon is a self-described systems lawyer; throughout most of his 50-year career he
has done systemic litigation: prison systems, school systems, public housing systems,
etc. In the early 1990s, he was introduced to the systemic problems involved in indigent
defense and began working on finding a powerful way to change the system.
In 2012, in a case that has been called a “watershed moment,” Hanlon was lead counsel
for the Missouri Public Defender in State ex rel. Mo. Public Defender Commission,
370 S.W.3d 592 (Mo.banc 2012). This was the first state Supreme Court case in the
country to expressly uphold the right of a public defender organization to refuse
additional cases when confronted with excessive caseloads.
“When a public defender has too many cases and can prove that, a judge may not order
them to represent more people because that would be ordering a public defender to
do something that is both unethical and unconstitutional,” Hanlon says. “It’s shocking
that this would be a novel proposition in 2012.” This case essentially said that judges
can now “triage” instead of lawyers, evaluating public defender resources and assigning
them to the worst felonies. Then, if another competent lawyer cannot be found to take
less serious cases, those cases must be dismissed and the defendants released.
“The question is – now that we know a judge may not order you to do that – where do
you draw the line? That’s what I set out to do and what I have done for the last five
years,” Hanlon says.
Hanlon began a process to establish new, data-driven standards that could assist the
Missouri State Public Defender System (MSPD) in determining maximum workloads.
He received a grant from the American Bar Association (ABA) to find the right kind
of entity to do the work and determined that accounting firms, with their experience
in econometrics, would be the most reliable investigators. He partnered with RubinBrown,
and in 2014, under his guidance as project director, the ABA published “The Missouri
Project,” a landmark analysis of the MSPD and attorney workload standards, along with
a national blueprint for future studies. The exhaustive report has been highlighted
in the New York Times and has been described by experts as the most credible of its kind. It found that
for serious felonies, defenders in Missouri spent an average of only nine hours on
their cases, compared with the 47 hours needed. For misdemeanors, they spent only
two hours, while 12 were called for.
Hanlon now serves as project director for similar studies in several other states.
“All of my work on this has been pro bono except for Louisiana’s, but I’m having the
time of my life, and I’m representing heroes,” he says. “These people are heroes.
They’re trying murder cases during the day and talking to me at night.”
The ultimate goal is to replace the 1973 National Advisory Commission (NAC) Standards,
which are not based upon empirical study. Hanlon says state bar associations have
abandoned their responsibilities to enforce Rule 1.7 of the Rules of Professional
Conduct, which prohibits a concurrent conflict. He also aims to articulate a clear
constitutional theory behind the movement for reform. With this three-pronged approach
to tackling excessive workloads, Hanlon is more optimistic than he has been in 30
“I think Missouri is leading the nation,” he says. “We have a two-thirds Republican
legislature that gets reliable data and analytics [and has supported increased MSPD
funding]. And we have [director of MSPD] Michael Barrett and great public defenders.
We are not at the end of the battle. But sometime in the next five to 10 years – I
intend to be around, I’m a mere 75! – we are going to take the ball into the end zone.
“Frankly I don’t care who’s on the Supreme Court; I think we’ll win on the Supreme
Court. This is a lawyers’ issue, and the lawyers on the Court will get this.”
Besides federal recognition of the problem, what are long-term solutions to the public
“One is the supply side – give us more lawyers. Adequate funding for the public defenders
is essential,” Hanlon says. “On the demand side, misdemeanor cases are clogging up
the system and causing horrific collateral consequences – inability to get a job,
education, housing, military. We need to get out of the criminalization of poverty,
of homelessness, of mental illness, of drug addiction. These people do not need to
be placed in cages or fined and feed to eternal poverty; they need social workers.
The only reason they need lawyers is because we attach jail to it. Cages are not the
This fall, Professor Hanlon is bringing an NAPD Workloads Conference to campus titled
“Something’s Happenin Here,” on Nov. 17-18.
-- By Maria Tsikalas
This article originally appeared in the Saint Louis Brief (v18i2), SLU LAW's alumni magazine. Hear from Prof. Hanlon about ongoing public defender
workload initiatives on Wednesday, Nov. 15.