For years, the public defender system in Missouri has fought to alleviate a growing caseload it says leaves them unable to fairly represent clients.
Now, the man blamed for the crisis is being asked to help alleviate the crunch by heading into the courtroom.
Citing his authority under Missouri law, Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender system has ordered Gov. Jay Nixon to represent a criminal defendant in Cole County.
"It is my sincere 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," Barrett wrote in a letter to Nixon. "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 the problem, but is in a unique position to address it."
The dispute is rooted in a vetoed 2009 bill that would have set caseload standards for public defenders, allowing them to turn away defendants charged with lower-level crimes. At the time, Barrett said, Nixon promised to work with the legislature to solve the problem — but never followed through.
"Instead, you have 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," Barrett wrote in a letter to the Democratic governor.
At an appearance in Warrensburg on Thursday, Nixon defended his record on funding indigent defense.
"I've always supported legal representation for indigent criminal defendants," Nixon said. "That's proven by the fact that we have been significantly supportive of the public defender system in the state. as I've been governor, we've increased their budget 15.1 percent at the same time that we have had to lower the head count of the state by 5,100 employees."
Christopher Dunn, the chief of staff to the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said most of that 15 percent increase appears to be mostly due to required cost-of-living adjustments to salaries, not for new employees.
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general, has long supported a additional funding for public defender offices to stave off a crisis.
“It will get to a point when the constitutional violations to defendants will be clear enough they will start letting criminal defendants go. That’s terrible for public safety. It’s terrible for the rule of law and carrying out justice," Schaefer said.
The public defenders in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis, Gasconade, Lincoln, Osage and Jefferson counties did not return phone calls seeking comment on Barrett's letter or their case loads. Tara Crane, the lead public defender in St. Charles and Warren counties, referred questions back to Barrett.
The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis said it agrees with a statement from the Missouri Bar Association.
"While we do not have a position on the public defender's office assigning a case to the governor, we do have a long history of supporting proper funding for Missouri's justice system — including public defenders and prosecutors — because the people of Missouri deserve access to fair justice," the Missouri Bar statement read.
"We always support and believe in equal access to justice for all people," BAMSTL spokeswoman Amanda Lindley said.
Peter Joy, the director of the criminal law clinic at Washington University School of Law, called Barrett's appointment of Nixon a "modest step."
"There needs to be a recognition that the U.S. Constitution is supposed to mean something, even for poor people, and the governor just doesn't seem to grasp that," Joy said. "This governor has ignored the needs of poor defendants in this state, and it's shameful. Perhaps if he represents some, he'll maybe have a better appreciation of the needs of the citizens of the state."
Elle Moxley of KCUR contributed reporting from Warrensburg, Mo.
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