Reshaping the Nation’s Public Defense System

“A time to speak out, write, advocate, testify, and engage in litigation with us.”


Stephen F Hanlon began practicing law with his father, John F. Hanlon, about 55 years ago in St. Louis, Missouri. Mr. Hanlon was mentored by his father, who was considered by all who knew him to be “a lawyer’s lawyer.”

When Mr. Hanlon was the Pro Bono Partner at Holland & Knight for 23 years, he was also mentored by Chesterfield Smith, one of America’s great lawyers, who was the founder of Holland & Knight and the President of the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1973.

When Chesterfield Smith wanted to speak out or litigate on behalf of a person or cause he believed in, but knew he could not convince his firm to undertake the case because of the controversial nature of the matter, he spoke out, wrote, and filed lawsuits in the name of “Citizen Smith.”

When Mr. Hanlon first started representing black school children in Florida in the the mid-1970s, successfully challenging Florida’s “Functional Literacy Test” with his brilliant partner Rob Shapiro, Mr. Hanlon’s clients and their parents, and their teachers all called him “Lawyer Hanlon,” a name he has always cherished.

The African American survivors and descendants of the town of Rosewood that was destroyed in a race riot in 1923, also called Mr. Hanlon “Lawyer Hanlon” when he and his partner Martha Barnett, former President of the American Bar Association, represented them in their successful efforts to recover $2.1 million from the Florida Legislature in 1993. So Mr.Hanlon has formed a new law firm, to be known as “Lawyer Hanlon,” a firm that
will work with other law firms, lawyers, law professors, law students, and experts who have expressed an interest in joining him in his efforts.

Mr. Hanlon has held various positions in the American Bar Association and the National Association for Public Defense, but like Chesterfield Smith, he now wants to speak out, write, testify, advocate, and initiate litigation in areas that may not be appropriate for those institutions, given their respective missions and their respective constituencies. 1

Throughout most of Mr. Hanlon’s career, he has been a civil rights lawyer doing institutional reform litigation (public schools, prisons, public health institutions, public housing, etc.) In 2019, The New York Times called him “one of the leading voices in public interest law for decades.”

About twenty years ago, the great American death penalty lawyer George Kendal asked Mr. Hanlon to turn his attention to America’s criminal “justice” system, particularly America’s indigent defense system.

At that time, Mr. Hanlon had never done any work on indigent defense systems. When he went inside those courtrooms and saw what was going on–what he would eventually call America’s “criminal processing system”–Mr. Hanlon was shocked by what he saw and heard.

For the next twenty years, Mr. Hanlon filed systemic litigation attacking America’s criminal processing system, publishing four law review articles about that system, teaching a law school course at St. Louis University School of Law about that system, speaking out publicly about that system and testifying as an expert witness in litigation seeking to change that system. His work has been featured in the New York Times, on 60 Minutes and on the PBS Evening News Hour.

Mr. Hanlon has now concluded that, with rare exceptions, America’s criminal processing system is systemically unconstitutional and unethical. And now we can prove that point with reliable data and analytics.

Most disturbingly, Mr. Hanlon has concluded that we – all of us in our profession, and especially his generation of lawyers and judges – have been the principal facilitators of mass incarceration in our nation, which has inflicted untold damage on millions of people, particularly black and brown people.

Mr. Hanlon is now convinced, as he said on the PBS EveningNewsHour, that “you cannot do mass incarceration unless the entire legal system just rolls over and plays dead.” In the memorable words of the late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, we–all of us–have become “loyal foot soldiers in the Executive’s war on crime.”

Mr. Hanlon has been the Project Leader for ABA public defender workload studies done in seven states and was a consultant on the Texas study. The ABA Journal Magazine has called him “the Oracle” for public defender workload studies.

Mr. Hanlon took the oath of admission to The Missouri Bar on September 3, 1966. Later, he would take similar oaths of admission to the bar in both Florida and Washington, D.C.

Like his father and like Chesterfield Smith before him, Mr. Hanlon took his oath of admission seriously, particularly the following sections:
● I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.
● That I will at all times conduct myself in accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.
● That I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay anyone’s cause for lucre or malice.
● So help me God.

1 Mr. Hanlon has no illusions in this regard. Paraphrasing the great Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Mr. Hanlon likes to say, “I worked with Chesterfield Smith. I knew Chesterfield Smith. I assure you, I am no Chesterfield Smith. But I had a quantum leap in my understanding of the role of the law in our society after working with him for 14 years. And I can do my best to emulate his approach to the law.”

“One of the Leading Voices in Public Interest Law for Decades” – The New York Times 2019

Upcoming ‘Watershed’ Moment in Public Defense Could Spark Nationwide Solutions

New Mexico Public Defender’s Five-Year Plan to Reduce Representation Deficiency

This is how public defenders across the country are going to approach their legislators from now on — with this kind of reliable data and analytics. These metrics will drive both public defense and criminal justice reform.

One Man’s Fight for Reshaping the Nation’s Public Defense System

Stephen F. Hanlon says the U.S. doesn’t have a criminal justice system but rather a criminal processing system. He plans to change that.

The Professor William P Murphy Scholarship at the University of Missouri Law School

Here’s a video about a wonderful day Stephen F. Hanlon had recently at his law school. He got to say a few things he has long wanted to say.

The William P Murphy Scholarship Fund at the Missouri University School of Law

Professor Murphy was a wonderful mentor. Lawyer Hanlon established this scholarship in his name. Click here to see the short video.

Interview with Hunter Parnell on Public Defenseless

A legacy to the next generation of lawyers.

“We — all of us in our profession — have become the principal facilitators of mass incarceration in our nation…”

Stephen F. Hanlon is a dedicated attorney who is leading a national movement to reduce the workload of public defenders. He understands that when public defenders are overworked, they may not be fully equipped to defend their clients. As such, he is determined to ensure that public defenders have sufficient resources to provide the best legal representation to those who need it most. However, Lawyer Hanlon is not just a lawyer. He is a passionate advocate for social justice and fairness in the legal system, and he uses his platform to raise awareness about legal issues that affect marginalized communities. His unwavering commitment to fighting for justice has earned him respect and admiration from his peers and clients alike.

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