A Cole County circuit judge has ruled that the Missouri Public Defender System Director doesn’t have the authority to assign Governor Jay Nixon (D) to serve as a public defender. Judge Patricia Joyce says only courts can appoint public defenders.

Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett

Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett

An ongoing feud between Barrett and Nixon has been about money. Barrett appointed Nixon this month, as a protest to Nixon withholding $3.5 million of the Department’s $4.5 million budget increase. Barrett claimed that he has the authority to assign Nixon, but Nixon disputed that claim.

“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,” said Nixon.

Last month, Barrett sued Nixon for freezing the funding. Barrett contends that if the Public Defender System continues to be underfunded, the state will have to build a new prison. Nixon’s office says expenses for the Public Defender System have increased by more than 9% during the past seven fiscal years. A court hearing involving the lawsuit is scheduled for Tuesday.

Last year, Barrett requested an additional $10 million in last year’s budget to hire 50 more attorneys and 20 support staff. Barrett said some offices have two-and-a-half times the number of cases they can handle with their current staff.  That request was not fulfilled.

Barrett told Missourinet that last year, his department handled approximately 74,000 cases with about 375 attorneys.  That’s nearly 200 cases per attorney last year.