MO Gov. Axes Public Defense Funds, Finds Himself Defending Public

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Amid one of the nation's worst public defense budget crises, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has been ordered by the state's public-defender director to sign up as counsel of record for the state's poorest. Unable to pay for sufficient public defenders, the state's director of the public defender system called upon a little-used law that allows him to enlist lawyers as public defenders. The governor, being an attorney, was first on that list.

It's an ironic twist for Nixon, a guy who has continuously slashed funds going towards public defense. It looks like he'll have to work with whatever tools are left.

Trouble Brewin' in Missouri

"Missouri's public-defender system is in crisis," to use to words the words of the Atlantic. According to the National Legal Aid and Defense Association, the state spends less than half of the national average, per-person, in public defense spending.

Many of the system's woes are due to the actions of the state's governor, Jay Nixon. Some time ago, his office vetoed a bill aimed at providing much needed case load relief, all the time conceding that the public-defender system was operating "under significant stress." He doubled down in 2015 by reducing the budget even further, from $3.47 million to $1 million. Nixon's office has cited fiscal discipline as reasoning.

Missouri's 270 public defenders, faced with mountains of work and low pay, can barely keep the system treading water, according to a 2015 piece from the St. Louis Dispatch.

An Open Letter to Jay Nixon

Michael Barrett, director of Missouri State's Public Defender Office has been keeping a keen eye on all of Gov. Nixon's activities and isn't too pleased. So he happened upon an interesting solution. Relying on a rarely-invoked Missouri law, Barret called Nixon in for duty, as a public defender.

Barrett penned a scathing letter addressed to Nixon's office. Since Gov. Nixon has slashed monies going to the PD system and in order to avoid closing down offices in the state, "the remaining option is to consider the use of Section 600.042.5," giving the director the authority to delegate counsel. You know where this is going.

[G]iven 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... I hereby appoint you, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Bar No. 29603, to enter your appearance as counsel of record in the attached case.

Crossing of Swords

We're not sure what Nixon's expression was like after he read this letter, but we'd love to get a picture.

Barrett and Nixon have crossed swords before and the former has accused the latter of trying to single handedly transform the state's democracy into a form of monarchy.

We await a response from Nixon's office.

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