Public Defender assigns legal case to Gov. Nixon

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COLUMBIA - The Missouri State Public Defender's office assigned a legal case to Gov. Jay Nixon in an open letter on August 2.

In the letter, Michael Barrett, the director of Missouri's public defender system, calls out Nixon for vetoing Senate Bill No. 37, which Barrett said would have "provided caseload relief to an overburdened system." He added Nixon has "repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that continues to rank 49th in the U.S. with a budget that the consumer price index indicates has less value now than it did in 2009." 

In protest of declining funding for the public defender system, Barrett wrote, "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 cited, an obscure legal provision in the Missouri State Constitution, Section 600.042.5, which gives the Director of the Public Defender System the authority to "[d]elegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri." 

Nixon earned a law degree from the University of Missouri, and worked in private practice in his hometown before being elected to the Missouri Senate in 1986. 

Gary Toohey, director of communications for the Missouri Bar, confirmed that Gov. Nixon is a legal member of the bar and in good standing.

Scott Holste, communications director for Governor Nixon, responded to KOMU 8 by email on Nixon's behalf on Thursday.

Holste said, "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."

Holste cited Section 600.064 of Missouri law, which states only the circuit court can appoint a private attorney to represent a criminal defendant.

He added, "Section 600.064, the statute referenced by the public defender, authorizes the public defender to 'delegate' representation with private counsel, which requires the consent of the private attorney." 

KOMU 8 is continuing to reach out to the Public Defender's office for comment.