After suing the Governor over the withholding of funds for public defenders, Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defenders Office has taken the extreme measure of appointing Democratic Governor Jay Nixon cases to defend those who cannot afford to defend themselves.
The unusual measure comes about, according to Barrett, because the Governor has “repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that continues to rank 49th in the US.”
Under Missouri law, Barrett has the authority to, under extreme circumstances, appoint any member of the Missouri Bar to defend those who cannot afford to defend themselves. Nixon, a lawyer and member of the Missouri Bar, fits those requirements.
In a scathing letter to the Governor, Barrett informed Nixon of his appointment and tore into the Governor, writing, “Seven years ago, your office vetoed Senate Committee Substitute Bill No 37, which would have provided caseload relief to an overburdened public defender system. In denying that relief, you acknowledged that MSPD was operating “under significant stress” and committed to working with the General Assembly to fix the problem, but never did.”
The letter continues, “Instead, you have repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that continues to rank 49th in the US, with a budget that the consumer price index indicates has less value now than it did in 2009. After cutting $3.47 million from public defense in 2015, you now cite fiscal discipline as reason to again restrict MSPD’s budget, this time by 8.5%. 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 slams Nixon over the state’s civil rights record following the Justice Department investigation into law enforcement after the riots in Ferguson last year, writing, “This action comes even after the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found that poor black children are being systemically deprived of their rights in Missouri due in large part to the lack of public defenders,” Barrett tells the Governor, “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.”
Missouri law allows the Director of MSPD to appoint any member of the Missouri bar to defend the destitute.
Barrett writes, “As of yet, I have not utilized this provision because it is my sincerest belief that it is wrong to reassign an obligation placed on the state by the 6th and 14th Amendments to private attorneys who have in no way contributed to the current crisis. 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.
“Therefore,” the letter concludes, “pursuant to Section 600.042.5 and as Director of the Missouri State Public Defender System tasked with carrying out the State’s obligation to ensure that poor people who face incarceration are afforded competent counsel in their defense, I hereby appoint you, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Bar No. 29603, to enter your appearance as counsel of record in the attached case.”
The case to which Mr. Barrett refers is not known as it was not attached to the letter, but the letter did reference the fact that the MSPD caseload has increased 12 percent in the past year.