Gov. Nixon Doesn't Have to Serve as Public Defender, Says No-Fun Judge


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.
A killjoy judge in Cole County isn't going to let us see Governor Jay Nixon sweat it out as a public defense attorney.

Interpreting the law in the least fun way possible, Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled today against some of the greatest political trolling in recent memory when she proclaimed the beleaguered head of the chronically underfunded Missouri State Public Defender System couldn't legally force Nixon to represent a poor defendant in an assault case.

The director, Michael Barrett, had tried to co-opt Nixon, arguably the state's highest-ranking attorney, using a provision in state law that allows him to delegate cases to any member of the Missouri Bar. The move was an ingenious bit of political showmanship that brought instant attention to a funding battle Barrett and his predecessor had fought throughout the governor's tenure.

Missouri ranks second-to-last in state funding for the public defenders, which manifests in some terrible ways, such as a juvenile justice system in St. Louis County that the federal Justice Department says poses "dire consequences" for child defendants.

Barrett had sued Nixon in July after the governor blocked all but $1 million of $4.5 million the legislature had approved for public defenders. When that didn't change anything he assigned Nixon a case, claiming he really needed the manpower. 

On Thursday, Nixon issued a statement saying Barrett misread the law and never had the authority to assign him a case. He says he has always "supported indigent criminal defendants having proper legal representation," and he added that the public defender's office should "strive to improve the efficiency of efficiency of its operations before asking the taxpayers for more money..."

The judge's decision will almost surely break the hearts of defense attorneys across the nation, who'd been tweeting the rookie mistakes the governor was likely to make during his first day as a public defender. But while we may never get to see Missouri's governor fumble over motions as his ticked-off client asks for a "real lawyer," at least Barrett has forced him and the state's funding woes into the spotlight.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.