KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The head of Missouri's public defender system said he is appointing Gov. Jay Nixon to handle a case in protest of withheld funding.
Michael Barrett, the director of Missouri's Public Defender System, wrote in a letter this week that his office lacks the funding to hire enough public defenders for people who can't afford representation. The letter to Nixon was dated Tuesday and posted Wednesday on the office's website.
Barrett said state law allows him to appoint any Missouri attorney to secure representation for indigent clients. He said he's starting with Nixon, a former attorney general.
"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 this problem, but is in a unique position to address it," Barrett wrote.
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said in a written statement Thursday that the governor has "always supported indigent criminal defendants having legal representation" and that "it is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel." Holste cited a state statute that said appointments of private counsel are made after a circuit court judge determines that they won't cause "undue hardship."
In his letter, Barrett cited a U.S. Department of Justice report released in July 2015 on the St. Louis County Family Court, which in part said young people accused of crimes often lack proper legal representation. It also said black youths are treated more harshly than whites. Meanwhile, a 2014 American Bar Association study, conducted by the consulting firm RubinBrown, estimated Missouri's public defenders spend less than a quarter of the time needed to be "reasonably effective" on some felony cases.
"I'm not trying to jump up and down and get attention, but this is a constitutional right," Barrett said in a phone interview, adding that attorneys are juggling from 125 to more than 200 cases at a time.
Office of Administration spokeswoman Ryan Burns said the agency's budget has gone up roughly $5.4 million while Nixon's been in office, from about $35.7 million in fiscal year 2009 to about $41.1 million in fiscal year 2017. But the agency said it needs more and has been frustrated by withheld money.
The Missouri's Public Defender System last month filed a lawsuit over its funding, saying Nixon withheld $3.5 million of a $4.5 million increase. Lawmakers had approved the increase in June after Barrett warned that his office needs almost twice as many attorneys and that because of their large workloads, public defenders were spending 40 percent less time on cases than private defense attorneys would.
Nixon also withheld money from the system for the fiscal year that ended in June, 30, 2015. He later released the money, but it was too late to spend $2.97 million.
Barrett, who was hired by a Nixon-appointed commission, has asked the governor to handle an assault case in Cole County. He declined to offer the name of the suspect, and a court employee said there was no way to search for information about the case without a name.
Cole County prosecuting attorney Mark Richardson also said there was no way to know which case Nixon had been asked to handle without more information. Richardson declined to comment further about the situation.