Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. (Missouri National Guard / CC 2.0)

Saying he’s out of options for defending poor clients, Missouri Public Defender Michael Barrett has assigned a case to the state’s governor, Jay Nixon. Nixon is fighting the move, saying it’s illegal.

In a letter to the governor, Barrett writes, “[I]t 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 told Nixon, “[Y]ou have repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that continues to rank 49th in the U.S. … After cutting $3.47 million from public defense in 2015, you now cite fiscal discipline as reason to again restrict [the public defender’s] budget, this time by 8.5%.”

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “[t]he system’s caseload has gone up 12 percent over the past year to about 82,000 cases, with each lawyer having to handle 125 to more than 200 cases at a time.”

Barrett explains that these funding cuts disproportionately harm minority youths, writing:

This action comes even after the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found that poor black children are being systematically deprived of their rights in Missouri due in large part to the lack of public defenders. Choosing in the wake of that to further debilitate the very organization that ensures an equal system of justice only adds to the escalating sentiment that the poor and disenfranchised do not receive a fair shake in Missouri’s criminal justice system.

Nixon has responded that Barrett’s actions are not legal. “It is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel,” a spokesperson for the governor said. Barrett, however, argues that under “the use of Section 600.042.5 …the Director of the Public Defender System [has] the authority to ‘[d]elegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri.’ ”

As Matt Ford of The Atlantic notes, “[r]elying on private attorneys to fill gaps in the public-defender system is hardly novel.” Nixon’s attorney status is reportedly “active” and in good standing.

According to the Post-Dispatch, Nixon supports the obscure measure that Barrett is acting under but says Barrett would need the private attorney’s consent to make such an appointment.

—Posted by Emma Niles

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