In protest of declining funding, the director of Missouri’s public defender system says he has appointed Gov. Jay Nixon as a defense attorney to represent a client who can’t afford one of his own.
The unusual appointment was delivered this week in a letter posted on the Missouri State Public Defender website and signed by the director, Michael Barrett.
In the letter, Barrett wrote that repeated budget cuts have left his office unable to hire enough public defenders. The state public defender’s office is responsible for providing defense in court to people charged with crimes who cannot afford to pay an attorney.
To secure representation for indigent clients, Barrett wrote, the law allows him to appoint any Missouri attorney — including Nixon.
“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.
For authority to do that, Barrett cited a state statute giving him the power to “delegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri.”
In a statement Thursday, Nixon’s office disputed the idea that the public defender could compel the governor to represent a client in court.
Scott Holste, a spokesman for the governor, said the statute gives the public defender the ability to delegate the job to a private attorney, but only with consent.
“Gov. Nixon has always supported indigent criminal defendants having legal representation,” Holste wrote in a statement. “That is why under his administration the state public defender has seen a 15 percent increase in funding at the same time that other state agencies have had to tighten their belts and full-time state employment has been reduced by 5,100.”
It’s true that the public defender’s office budget has seen incremental increases over the years, but it has also seen cuts. Last year’s budget was the lowest in five years, at $38.3 million. That was followed by another cut of more than 8 percent, Barrett said.
Funding complaints are nothing new at the state public defender’s office and are common among public defenders in almost every state.
But Missouri’s public defender system may be in more trouble than most. Two years ago, an American Bar Association study suggested the state needed to add almost 300 lawyers to the 350 it already had.
In recent years, Missouri has spent about $6.40 per resident to defend the poor, just over half the national average.