JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Earlier this month, Missouri’s Executive State Public Defender Michael Barrett made national headlines when he appointed Gov. Jay Nixon to represent an indigent defendant in Cole County. Roughly three weeks after Barrett sent his letter, the Cole County Circuit Court has issued an order that the public defender has no authority to appoint private counsel without a judge’s approval.
Budget balancing by Nixon in July saw $115 million of cuts due to a shortfalls on state revenue, including proposed increases for the public defender system. Barrett said in an open letter that Nixon’s unwillingness to fund the public defender’s office caused him to bring attention to the matter.
“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 in early August.
In a statement released by Nixon, he called Barrett’s actions “publicity stunts” and reaffirmed his commitment to the Public Defender’s Office. The full remarks can be read below:
Three years ago, we passed common-sense legislation to assist the Public Defender in managing caseloads and established a specific legal process by which the circuit court, and only the circuit court, can appoint private attorneys to provide representation to indigent criminal defendants. This bipartisan legislation had broad support, including from the Public Defender Commission and the then-executive director of the Office of Public Defender. The current executive director has ignored this law, instead engaging in publicity stunts that waste taxpayer resources and distract from their important work.
I have always supported indigent criminal defendants having proper legal representation. During my tenure, the Office of Public Defender has seen a 15 percent increase in funding and a nearly five percent increase in staff, even while other state agencies have had to tighten their belts and full-time state employment has been reduced by nearly 5,100. As with any agency – especially an agency that has had an increase in funding and personnel – the Office of Public Defender should strive to improve the efficiency of its operations before asking the taxpayers for more money, including taking action to recover the more than $70 million in uncollected legal fees identified in the most recent state audit of the agency by the Missouri State Auditor.
From the outset, it was clear that the executive director of the Office of Public Defender did not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel. 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.”