Mo. Governor Appointed to Defend a Poor Person

     JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) — Citing the state’s failure to adequately fund his department, Missouri’s lead public defender took the unusual move to order Gov. Jay Nixon to represent a poor person in Cole County this month.
     In a letter Tuesday, Michael Barrett told the Democratic two-term governor that 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.” Nixon is Missouri’s highest profile lawyer.
     A Nixon spokesman said the move was illegal.
     The letter states Nixon’s administration has repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that ranks 49th in the United States. It claims the public defender’s office’s budget has less value now than it did in 2009 according to the consumer price index and after cutting $3.47 million in its budget in 2015, another 8.5% of the budget was restricted this year.
     “However, and despite claims that revenues are considerably less than expected, you did not restrict a single dollar from your own budget, and the average withhold from 12 of your executive agencies does not even add up to one half of one percent (.47%),” Barrett, the director of Missouri’s Public Defender Commission, wrote.
     Last month, Barrett and his office filed a lawsuit against Nixon in Cole County claiming Nixon, a former Attorney General, was withholding funds from his department in favor of programs Nixon prefers.
     Barrett pointed out that public defender funding is extremely important following the Department of Justice’s finding that poor black children in Missouri are being deprived of their rights in court, mainly due to a lack of public defenders. The investigation was sparked due to the protests in Ferguson following the police shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014.
     “Choosing in the wake of that report to further debilitate the very organization that ensures an equal system of justice only adds to the escalating sentiment that the poor and disenfranchised do not receive a fair shake in Missouri’s criminal justice system,” Barrett wrote.
     Barrett claims a 12 percent caseload increase has exacerbated the department’s funding issues.
     In order to avoid closing one or more of the department’s offices, Barrett says he is invoking the provision that allows him to assign cases to any member of the Missouri bar. His belief is it is wrong to assign the cases to private attorneys who have nothing to do with the department’s funding.
     “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.
     Nixon’s office refutes Barrett’s numbers.
     Nixon Spokesman Scott Holste told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that there has been a 15 percent increase in Missouri Public Defender’s budget while other offices have had to deal with cuts. He also said that Barrett cannot appoint a private attorney to act as a public defender without that attorney’s consent.
     “It is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel,” Holste told the Post-Dispatch.

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