The Missouri State Public Defender's Office, the entity in charge of ensuring all criminal defendants in the state have legal representation when they go to trial, fired a warning shot across Democratic state Gov. Jay Nixon's desk this week, by appointing Nixon, the state's former attorney general, to represent one of the state's indigent defendants.
In a letter to the governor, MSPD Director Michael Barrett wrote Nixon "repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that continues to rank 49th in the U.S., 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% ... this action comes even after the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found that poor black children are being systematically deprived of their rights in Missouri due in large part to the lack of public defendants."
Barrett wrote case load this year is 12% more than the year prior, despite the lower funding — and then twisted the knife.
The director of the state public defender's office, Barrett wrote, is authorized to appoint any member of the Missouri state bar as the legal counsel for any defendant who chooses to avail themselves of the state system.
So he appointed Nixon the public defender in a criminal case.
The dispute stems from Nixon's decision in July to withhold $3.5 million of a planned $4.5 million increase in the state's public defender budget, as reported by MissouriNet.
"Before you fund parks, before you fund trail expansion, before you fund a farmer's market in Jefferson City, you have to meet your obligations," Barrett told the site. "Each lawyer in the system has anywhere between 150-225 cases. The only way to handle them is essentially to process the cases. Each client is not receiving an investigation of their case, meeting with the lawyer, getting discovery done, motion practice. That's what our attorneys have an ethical obligation to do for each and every client, but because there's too many clients and not enough lawyers, there's just not enough time in the day to represent each client ethically."
The MSPD has sued Nixon over the withholding, saying the governor breached his constitutional separation of powers and created a situation in which it is "unable to proceed with case contracting to reduce caseload to ethically permissible levels, unable to fill vacant attorney positions, limited in its ability to pay litigation costs and unable to provide necessary technology for effective client representation."