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-five 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-five 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.”

When Mr. Hanlon was the General Counsel for the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) in 2014, he proposed that the NAPD adopt the following goal for reform of public defense workloads in the country: “To produce a critical mass of reliable data and analytics to support the development of new National Public Defense Workload Standards to replace the 1973 NAC Standards.”
Over the course of the ensuing 10 years, Mr. Hanlon was the Project Leader for the ABA on seven groundbreaking public defender workload studies.  Mr. Hanlon then assembled the team of The RAND Corporation, the ABA, the National Center for State Courts and Lawyer Hanlon, which recruited a panel of 33 expert criminal defense lawyers from across the nation to review Mr. Hanlon’s work and ten other public defense workload studies, and to apply the law and standards applicable to such criminal defense work in order to produce new National Public Defense Workload Standards in September, 2014.
Mr. Hanlon then formed the Quality Defense Alliance, consisting of the law firm of Holland & Knight, the accounting firm of Moss Adams, the JFA Institute, the NAPD and Lawyer Hanlon to advocate and, if necessary, litigate to enforce the NPDWS across the nation.

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

Public Defenders work 3 times too many cases, milestone study and new data show

“This is a watershed moment in public defense.”

— Stephen F Hanlon

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


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.

Holland & Knight’s Remarkable Oregon Public Defender Motion to Withdraw

A highly replicable litigation model for every state.

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

Stephen F. Hanlon is a long time civil rights lawyer 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. 

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