Most people know that as part of their rights under the U.S. Constitution, when they are charged with a crime, if they can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed to represent them. However, public defenders are notoriously overworked and in short supply in many areas.
Public Defender Caseload Has Grown
In Missouri, a battle has been brewing over lack of state funding for public defenders. The caseload for Missouri public defenders has risen in the last year by 12 percent, with each attorney having 125 to over 200 cases assigned to him or her at any given time.
The head of the state’s public defender commission, Michael Barrett, in an unprecedented move last week, appointed none other than Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to represent a Cole County defendant accused of assault.
Appointment Is Part of Funding Battle
Barrett, who once worked for Nixon, has been fighting the governor to get more money for public defenders since he became head of the public defender system 15 months ago. The commission has even sued to get it. Nixon cut $3.5 million of a $4.5 million increase approved for more attorneys. A 2014 study determined that 270 additional public defenders were needed.
Barrett says he can appoint the governor to act as a public defender under a Missouri statute that gives him the authority to “delegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” Nixon fits that qualification. He was once an attorney general.
Governor Claims Move Is Illegal
Governor Nixon, not surprisingly, is fighting this appointment. His spokesman said, “the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel.” The spokesman also noted that other state agencies have faced budget constraints, and that the public defender system has still seen an increase in funding.
While Nixon and Barrett fight this out, it remains to be seen what happens to the particular defendant in the middle and to other Missouri defendants who need the services of a public defender. One St. Louis attorney who is a member of the commission says, “I’m just worried about the whole system crumbling.”
Of course, it’s always preferable if someone can hire an attorney when they or a loved one has been charged with a crime. Criminal defense attorneys protect defendants’ rights, present their cases and challenge the evidence. That all takes time that public defenders handling hundreds of cases don’t have. However, a strong public defender system is essential to our justice system.
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