Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon Ordered to Serve as Public Defender

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Governor Jay Nixon has been appointed as defense counsel in a Cole County case. - VIA
  • via
  • Governor Jay Nixon has been appointed as defense counsel in a Cole County case.
Missouri's top public defender just assigned a case to perhaps the most high-powered lawyer in the state — Governor Jay Nixon.

With a flourish of some amazing showmanship, Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett wrote to Nixon on Tuesday, informing the former attorney general he was exercising his powers under state law to assign cases to any member of the Missouri Bar.

Specifically, Barrett told Nixon, he was appointing him.
Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender, has ordered the governor to appear in a Cole County case. - IMAGE VIA MISSOURI STATE PUBLIC DEFENDER
  • Image via Missouri State Public Defender
  • Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender, has ordered the governor to appear in a Cole County case.

Barrett has clearly had it with the governor. In his letter, he blasts Nixon for cutting money for a system that already ranks second-to-last in state funding for public defenders. He says he's generally opposed to assigning cases to private attorneys, because it dumps the state's constitutionally mandated burden on lawyers who have their own responsibilities.

"However, 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 writes.

Nixon has yet to respond to Barrett's order, and it remains to be seen whether he ever shows up in a Cole County courtroom. (Update: Nixon's spokesman has responded. See below.) But he'll have to contend with Barrett at some point.

Barrett and the state public defender commission sued the governor last month after Nixon withheld $3.5 million designated to help with a growing caseload. Barrett cited the governor's 2009 veto of legislation to help the commission, followed by moves to withhold funding in Fiscal Year 2015 and cut the system's budget by $3.47 million in Fiscal Year 2016.

"Throughout his two terms in office, Governor Nixon has seldom passed on an opportunity to weaken a poor person's constitutional right to counsel," according to a news release distributed at the time of the lawsuit.

Low-balling the public defender system hurts the state's poorest defendants and has "artificially inflated" Missouri's prison population to eighth highest in the nation per capita, according the defenders commission.

Barrett says he just doesn't have enough bodies to cover all the cases. Jay Nixon, prepare to enter your appearance in Cole County.

Update 11:05 a.m. — Response from Nixon spokesman Scott Holste:

"Gov. Nixon has always supported indigent criminal defendants having legal representation. That is why under his administration the state public defender has seen a 15 percent increase in funding at the same time that other state agencies have had to tighten their belts and full-time state employment has been reduced by 5,100. That being said, it is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel."

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