Fed up with what he says is the Missouri governor’s failure to properly fund his overwhelmed office, the state’s lead public defender ordered Gov. Jay Nixon this week to represent a poor person in the state capital this month, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Michael Barrett said he was using a provision of state law that allows him in extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” He’s starting with the state’s highest-profile lawyer: Nixon. Barrett says the governor has repeatedly declined to give the public defender system the money it requests and is withholding promised funding increases this year.
Barrett never exercised this power before because he thought it was wrong to place the burden of public cases on private attorneys “who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” he said. “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 wrote, referring to Nixon. Studies have found that the Missouri public defender system lacks the resources or staff to serve the state’s neediest. It has struggled with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and tired, overworked attorneys for years. In June, the legislature granted the system a $4.5 million increase, far under the $23.1 million it sought. In 2009, Missouri’s was the nation’s second-lowest-funded public defender system. Its caseload has risen 12 percent over the past year to about 82,000. Each lawyer must handle between 125 and 200 cases at a time.