Missouri's head public defender assigns case to Gov. Nixon, cites overburdened staff


St Louis Post-Dispatch:

Missouri’s head public defender assigns case to Gov. Nixon, cites overburdened staff

Fed up with what he says is the governor’s failure to properly fund his overwhelmed office, the state’s lead public defender ordered Gov. Jay Nixon this week to represent a poor person in Cole County this month.

Michael Barrett said he was using a provision of state law that allows him in extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” He’s starting with the state’s highest-profile lawyer: Nixon.

Barrett says the governor has repeatedly declined to give the public defender system the money it requests and is withholding promised funding increases this year.

“Providing counsel to poor people who face incarceration is the obligation of the state. It’s not fair to go after private attorneys who are trying to pay the rent when they had nothing to do with contributing to this,” Barrett said in an interview Wednesday.

Barrett never exercised this power before because he thought it was wrong to place the burden of public cases on private attorneys “who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” he wrote in a letter to the governor dated Tuesday.

“However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” Barrett wrote, referring to Nixon, a Democrat who was a four-term attorney general before becoming governor.

Studies have found that the Missouri Public Defender System lacks the resources or staff to serve the state’s neediest. The system has struggled with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and tired, overworked attorneys for years.

The Missouri constitution allows the director of the public defender system to assign cases to any lawyer in the state, regardless of whether the lawyer is a public defender, Barrett said.

Just this June, the legislature granted the public defender system a $4.5 million increase, which would’ve helped in hiring 10 more employees and some private attorneys on a contractual basis. The office currently employs more than 370 attorneys. Officials with the public defender’s office had asked for a $23.1 million boost, while Nixon recommended a $1 million increase.


Actually, I think this is a good idea. The last thing you need is a governor with too much time on his hands, because then all they do is find ways to mess up the economy.


Nixon is bored. He flubbed Ferguson, and it doesn’t take very long to veto all the bills our (really good) Congress sends his way. Especially since they override him constantly.

He’s also on his way out.


It’s a brilliant idea.


As a Missourian who never much cared for Nixon, I think it’s hilarious. But depending on where this case is, the judge may let him out of it.


I sure wouldn’t want to be the client!


Gov. Nixon, of course, is fighting the maneuver:

“It is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel,” said Nixon spokesman Scott Holste.


There are two things I don’t understand about this situation. The law says that the head public defender can “delegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” But does that mean he can conscript any member of the state bar or does it mean that he has the authority to allow a private attorney to act on behalf of the public defender?

My other confusion has to do with the blame being put on the governor. Doesn’t the state legislature determine funding levels in the annual budget? If so, how is the governor at fault?


My understanding is the office does have that power, though it isn’t really used. Some cursory reading about this story says attorneys can not refuse the case unless they’re retired, ill, have already acted as public defender twice that year, or have a conflict of interest. This is a brilliant way to publicize an issue a lot of people don’t think about, even though everyone involved knows the governor has an obvious conflict and won’t be able to represent anyone.

My other confusion has to do with the blame being put on the governor. Doesn’t the state legislature determine funding levels in the annual budget? If so, how is the governor at fault?

The PD office’s budget was recently raised $4.5 million by the legislature, a fraction of what the office requested but more than the $1 million the governor pushed for. There’s currently a lawsuit alleging the governor withheld $3.5 million of those funds, basically doing a runaround of the legislature to give the PD office what he thought they deserved anyways.


It’s my understanding that the congress has passed bills to increase funding and Nixon has vetoed them.


I would in a heartbeat, after all, what judge in their right mind is going to rule for the prosecution when the state gov is the defenses lawyer?!


I would encourage everyone to read Gideon’s Trumpet or watch the movie based on it, they tell the story of the Supreme Court case that guaranteed defendants right to and attorney, Gideon v. Wainwright.

Then check out Chasing Gideon, a book about how 50 years after Gideon representation for defendants is totally inadequate.


Just about every judge in Southwest Missouri, at least. :rotfl::rotfl:


Thank you, Imachine and Allegra. I find the workings of government and politics to be baffling at times. :whacky:


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.