Faced with debilitating budget cuts, Missouri head public defender Michael Barrett found a creative solution when a poor man needed a lawyer.
He ordered the governor, Jay Nixon, to represent him, according to a letter released by Barrett.
Missouri law allows the public defender to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri” in extraordinary circumstances. Barrett says Nixon has repeatedly refused to give the public defender system enough money to operate, and is withholding funding increases this year.
Citing extraordinary circumstances, Barrett ordered Nixon himself to represent the man, who was charged with assault, in Cole County.
“Providing counsel to poor people who face incarceration is the obligation of the state,” Barrett told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s not fair to go after private attorneys who are trying to pay the rent when they had nothing to do with contributing to this.”
In the letter, Barrett argues that the lack of funding adds to racial inequality.
“This action comes even after the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found that poor black children are being systematically deprived of their rights in Missouri due in large part to the lack of public defenders,” he wrote.
This is the first time Barrett has exercised this particular power. The current situation is dire, Barrett told the Washington Post. The public defender system only got $4.5 million of the $23.1 million it requested in June, which isn’t enough to hire the 270 additional attorneys it needs. As a result, public defenders spent far less time on individual cases than the American Bar Association’s recommendation.
“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 told the Post-Dispatch.
Nixon’s office hasn’t responded to comment from multiple media outlets, as of Wednesday night.
According to reports, Missouri public defenders have been underfunded for years, resulting in overworked attorneys, low pay, and — in this case — an unusual assignment for the governor.