This week Michael Barrett, head of Missouri’s Public Defender System, ordered Governor Jay Nixon to represent an indigent defendent in Cole County later this month. In a letter, Barrett defends his unprecedented action by saying that Governor Nixon has failed to fund the overwhelmed public defender’s office. Barrett says that state law allows him, in extraordinary circumstances, to delegate legal representation to “any member of the state bar of Missouri.” Governor Jay Nixon’s office, in response to Barrett’s order, issued a statement saying the public defender’s maneuver was not legal.
This latest action is part of an ongoing effort to draw attention to the underfunded public defender’s office. In the last 10 years, two studies by the Missouri Bar have found that the Missouri Public Defender’s office woefully lacks the staff and resources to serve the state’s neediest. One study showed that Missouri is ranked 49th in the nation on spending on indigent defense, and needs 270 more lawyers to meet its caseload of 70,000-100,000 cases annually. The MCC supports the increased funding of the Public Defender’s office.
Last month, Barrett and the Public Defender Commission filed a lawsuit after Governor Nixon withheld $3.5 million of a $4.5 million increase approved by the legislature for the public defenders. The lawsuit claims Nixon is targeting the public defender system for budget cuts, while leaving intact funding for his favorite programs.
This public spat between Gov. Nixon and Mr. Barrett will not likely be resolved soon. To learn more about this story, read this Time magazine article.