The frustrated director of Missouri’s underfunded public defender’s office has done something most unusual: He’s assigned a case to the governor.
The budget woes in Michael Barrett’s department are ongoing – too many poor people needing public defenders, too few lawyers to represent them. So he’s relying on a state law that appears to let him appoint any lawyer who's a member of the Missouri Bar to defend an indigent criminal defendant.
Enter Gov. Jay Nixon.
In a letter he sent to Nixon’s office, Barrett claims he has the authority to appoint the governor if he chooses.
But it’s unlikely the governor will actually defend anyone.
“I mean, it’s a gutsy move on the director’s part,” says Sean O’Brien, who heads the UMKC School of Law Death Penalty Representation Clinic . “I understand why he did, and I actually applaud him for doing it. I think it makes an important point. But it’s not a solution.”
O’Brien says it’s hard to overstate how dire the situation is right now for those who provide legal representation to those who cannot afford it. He estimates Missouri would need to hire 200 lawyers immediately to offer any sort of meaningful relief.
“People constantly say thank God for Mississippi so we wouldn’t be 50th out of 50,” O’Brien says.
Last month, Nixon blocked funding that state lawmakers approved for public defenders, saying the state had failed to meet revenue projections. Barrett is suing the Democratic governor to try to get him to release those funds.
Nixon, however, says the numbers in Barrett’s letter don’t tell the whole story. He says during his tenure – a time when Missouri reduced the size of government by 5,100 employees – funding for public defenders actually went up by about 15 percent.
“In the government I lead, with the fiscal discipline I do, an agency that’s received a double-digit increase has a significant additional investment,” Nixon says.
Nixon says public defenders will have to work more efficiently, as other government employees have been forced to do.
Ruth Petsch, who heads the Jackson County Public Defender's office, says Nixon doesn’t get it.
“I have no ill will towards the governor, necessarily,” Petsch says. “But there is a real lack of understanding about the impact this has on the people who work in the public defender system, as well as on our clients, on poor people.”
Petsch says her job is already exhausting and every year it gets worse.
“I think that’s a real fear of people in my office,” she says. “I didn’t find that witness, or I didn’t find that information. I’m pushed to trial, and I’m not going to do the job I should do. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Missouri Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has advocated for additional funding for public defenders. Schaefer, who lost his bid to become the Republican nominee for attorney general on Tuesday, called Nixon’s attitude inexcusable.
“It will get to a point when the constitutional violations to defendants will be clear enough they will start letting criminal defendants go,” he says. “That’s terrible for public safety.”
But Nixon, a former prosecutor, maintains other state agencies that deal with public safety have been able to do more with less.
“We upped police officer training requirements, had hearings across the state,” Nixon says. “Public safety didn’t get any additional resources to handle that responsibility to make sure cops are trained and they’re appropriately licensed.”
Nixon questioned whether Barrett actually has the authority to assign him a case. And even if he did, the case would likely have to wait until January, when Nixon leaves office due to term limits.
Maria Carter, Kyle Palmer and Anna Sturla contributed to this report.
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.