Missouri Bar Foundation presents Spurgeon Smithson Awards

The Missouri Bar Foundation recently honored Michael P. Gunn, Lajuana Counts and Sean O’Brien with Spurgeon Smithson Awards. The three were recognized at The Missouri Bar Foundation and Public Service Awards Luncheon on Sept. 21, 2016, during The Missouri Bar’s Annual Meeting at the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark.

The Spurgeon Smithson Awards were established in 1976 by bequest of the late Smithson, an outstanding Kansas City lawyer. The Foundation presents the awards annually to Missouri judges, teachers of law and/or lawyers deemed “to have rendered outstanding service toward the increase and diffusion of justice.”

Gunn, a past president of The Missouri Bar, practices in West St. Louis County in the areas of estate planning, probate and trust administration, and litigation. He has held numerous leadership positions in local, state and national organizations, including in the American Bar Association House of Delegates. Gunn currently serves as a member of the board of directors of the Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judges Association, and also serves on the St. Louis County Special Committee on Improvements of the Municipal Courts. His service to the City of Manchester, first as prosecuting attorney and now as judge, has been continuous since 1970.

“I think on a daily basis about the opportunity that I’ve been given,” Gunn said in an interview about the recognition. “What I’ve been given is some understanding of the law, some understanding of the procedure, an interest in the profession of the law and maybe a little bit of talent for leadership. And one of my obligations is to put those together to help society, and when I do that, I really get a great deal of satisfaction from it, so it’s given me a happy life.”

Counts has been an assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri since 1989, serving in the General Crimes Unit, the Narcotics Unit, as appellate coordinator and currently as chief of the Appellate Unit. She is incredibly active in her Kansas City community and has served in leadership roles at the local, state and national level. Among other positions, she is currently president of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Foundation, a member of the U.S. Department of Justice Appellate Chiefs Working Group and serves on the advisory panel, Federal Magistrate Act, for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

“Look at our Pledge of Allegiance – ‘liberty and justice for all.’ That’s what I try to live my life, is to give everyone the chance to have that liberty and justice for all,” Counts said in an interview about receiving a Spurgeon Smithson Award. “If everyone would just take ownership of their lives and helping others, that would make this entire world a better place.”

O’Brien is a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, where he teaches classes in criminal law and procedure, post-conviction remedies, investigation, mental health law and indigent defense clinics. He has represented people in capital trial, appeal and post-conviction cases across the country since 1983 and works on behalf of innocent prisoners together with the Midwest Innocence Project, which he helped found. His noteworthy cases include Schlup v. Delo, which preserved federal habeas corpus jurisdiction for innocent prisoners; Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal, which preserved federal habeas corpus jurisdiction for death row prisoners who become too insane to execute; and State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper, which empowers Missouri courts to grant habeas corpus relief to innocent prisoners even if they had a fair trial. O’Brien has served as the Jackson County public defender, chair of The Missouri Bar Criminal Law Committee and as a past president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“What I tell my students is follow the path with heart,” O’Brien said in an interview about the award. “If you’re passionate about what you do, you will be great at it, because the law gives us so many opportunities. There are so many unmet legal needs in the world, particularly in the U.S. because we do have a tradition of meaningful access to the courts. So there’s lots of need out there that isn’t being served.”

Click here for footage of Gunn, Counts and O’Brien discussing their work.

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