The Missouri Public Defender Commission is suing Governor Jay Nixon (D). Director Michael Barrett claims it’s unconstitutional for Nixon to withhold $3.5 million of the state public defender office’s $4.5 million budget.
“We’re an independent department within the third branch of government, the judiciary. I don’t think the Governor’s withhold authority gives him an excuse to reach across to a co-equal branch of government and essentially weaken that branch because revenues are down,” says Barrett.
Barrett says the state is required to fund defense for those who can’t afford a lawyer.
“Before you fund parks, before you fund trail expansion, before you fund a farmer’s market in Jefferson City, you have to meet your obligations,” says Barrett. “Each lawyer in the system has anywhere between 150-225 cases. The only way to handle them is essentially to process the cases. Each client is not receiving an investigation of their case, meeting with the lawyer, getting discovery done, motion practice. That’s what our attorneys have an ethical obligation to do for each and every client, but because there’s too many clients and not enough lawyers, there’s just not enough time in the day to represent each client ethically.”
The office has about a 20% turnover rate annually. When a lawyer leaves, Barrett says another attorney’s caseload will then double.
He says not properly funding his agency will mean Missouri’s prison population will increase.
“If we continue as we’re going, the right to counsel dissipates in Missouri. If just you look at the Department of Corrections budget, it has increased by $60 million under the Nixon administration,” says Barrett.
He is not in favor of a lower budget withhold.
“The legislature sat down and had a conversation with us about what is absolutely needed to get us out of crisis mode. We arrived at that $4.5 million number,” says Barrett.
Nixon’s office says expenses for the Public Defender’s office have increased by more than 9% during the past seven fiscal years, while the Governor has reduced the state workforce by more than 5,000 jobs in order to balance the budget.