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Missouri Republican calls for special session for public defender funding

State Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, is asking Gov. Jay Nixon to call a special session of the Missouri General Assembly.
State Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, is asking Gov. Jay Nixon to call a special session of the Missouri General Assembly.

A Republican state senator believes Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should call lawmakers into special session next month to deal with a funding crisis in the public defenders office and fix a problem in the state’s drunk driving law.

Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, asked Nixon to convene a special session to run concurrently with a veto session next month. His hope is the session would focus on funding a pilot program for the public defenders office that would allow them to contract with private attorneys to relieve stress on the system.

The struggles of Missouri’s public defenders office gained national attention earlier this month when the state’s lead public defender ordered Nixon to represent a poor person in Cole County. The move came after Nixon reduced a $4.5 million increase earmarked for the system by state legislators to $1 million.

Nixon balked at the suggestion, saying the public defenders office lacked the authority to assign him to a case. But the moved helped to highlight years of studies showing Missouri’s public defender system was buckling under the pressure of slim budgets and overworked attorneys. In 2009, a report concluded the state’s caseload burden was “a crisis so serious it has pushed the entire criminal justice system in Missouri to the brink of collapse.”

“Unfortunately,” Dixon wrote in an OpEd circulated to various media around the state, “we’re failing our citizens.”

Dixon also hopes to fix a typo in the state’s drunk driving laws that prosecutors say could make it impossible to prosecute thousands of DWI cases.

The way the law was written between December 2012 and January 2014, breathalyzers had to be calibrated using chemical solutions with a vapor concentration of 1.10 percent, 0.08 percent and 0.04 percent. The “and” was supposed to be an “or,” and the state Supreme Court ruled in January that a woman should have her driving privileges reinstated because her 2013 breathalyzer test did not comply with the way the law was written.

Dixon sponsored a fix to the law but it didn’t get much traction during the 2016 session.

“We haven’t failed until we’ve given up,” Dixon said. “Let’s roll up our sleeves and get back to work.”

Nixon’s office hasn’t indicated whether it’s considering a special session.

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