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Missouri Governor Doesn’t Have to Serve as Public Defender

In a letter dated August 2, 2016, the director of Missouri’s Public Defender System called for Governor Jay Nixon – a licensed lawyer who was a four-term Attorney General before being elected governor – to represent an indigent defendant in Cole County. State Public Defender Michael Barrett cited MRS Section 600.042.5, which allows him to “[d]elegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri.”

In attempting to enlist Governor Nixon to assist his overburdened office, Barrett wrote, “[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 this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” referring to inadequate funding for the State Public Defender System.

Nixon fired back that Barrett’s appointment was illegal. “It is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel,” said Scott Holste, the governor’s spokesman. On August 25, 2016, Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce agreed, ruling that Nixon should not be required to personally serve as a public defender.

“It is my hope that following today’s order denying this patently unlawful action, the Office of Public Defender will now return its attention to the job it has to do, and the resources already available with which to do it,” Governor Nixon stated.

In 2009, Missouri’s State Public Defender System was the second-lowest-funded in the nation. A 2014 study recommended that the office hire almost 270 more attorneys to handle up to 100,000 criminal cases every year. According to Barrett, public defenders have caseloads of 125 to over 200 cases at a time, resulting in his attempt to draft the governor into helping out. At the very least, his efforts served to publicize the problems facing his office.


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