Missouri's public defender system sues over governor's hold on funds

Published: Jul. 13, 2016 at 2:27 PM CDT
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Missouri's public defender agency filed a lawsuit over what it calls Gov. Jay Nixon's unconstitutional decision to withhold $3.5 million in funds for defending indigent people.

The Missouri State Public Defender system and the state's Public Defender Commission filed the lawsuit on Wednesday in Cole County. They argue Nixon cut its budget by 8.5 percent while no general revenue was restricted from Nixon's office's own budget.

The system's director, Michael Barrett, calls the move political and accuses Nixon of trying to "weaken public defense to the point it can no longer perform its independent function within the criminal justice system." Barrett also says Nixon is attempting "to transform our democracy into a monarchy."

Messages left Wednesday with representatives of Nixon and the state's attorney general were not immediately returned.

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News release from Missouri Public Defender System

July 13, 2016 (COLUMBIA, MO)— In response to the Governor's action to withhold $3.5 million in caseload relief funding, today the Missouri State Public Defender (MSPD) and the Missouri State Public Defender Commission filed a petition in Cole County challenging the constitutionality of restricting funds for indigent defense.

“For years, Governor Nixon has used low revenues as a ruse to encroach upon the budgetary function of the legislature and weaken public defense to the point it can no longer perform its independent function within the criminal justice system. The Governor’s attempt to transform our democracy into a monarchy violates the separation of powers at the most rudimentary level,” said Michael Barrett, Director of MSPD.

Governor Nixon restricted a total of 1% of state general revenue, but decreased the public defender budget by 8.5%, which was already the second least funded public defense system in the country. And no general revenue was restricted from the Governor’s own budget. In response to this disparity, Director Barrett said: “Make no mistake about it, this is not fiscal discipline. This is politics.”

Throughout his two terms in office, Governor Nixon has seldom passed on an opportunity to weaken a poor person’s constitutional right to counsel. In 2009, Governor Nixon vetoed legislation that would have provided caseload relief to the public defender system without additional funding, then characterizing the problem as a lack of resources. But when the Missouri General Assembly provided resources in FY2015, the Governor withheld the funding, then cut MSPD’s budget by $3.47 million in FY2016. Now again, in FY2017, the Governor has deprived MSPD of the $3.5 million approved by the Legislature for caseload relief.

“It is the usual business of the Public Defender Commission to oversee providing representation of indigent criminal defense across the state and not suing the Governor. However, it has become clear to the Commission, coupled with the lingering results of last year’s budget short falls, that without the full FY2017 appropriation, we cannot maintain the system statewide through this fiscal year,” said Riley Bock, Chair of the Public Defender Commission.

Bock further added, “The Missouri Public Defender System, because of inadequate funding, is beginning to unravel. If this matter is not quickly resolved, the criminal justice system across the state is about to experience serious problems and unchartered challenges.”

The sad irony is that keeping public defense fiscally anemic actually costs tax payers more money. Because MSPD attorneys are well above 200% of caseload capacity, it is nearly impossible to investigate and competently defend each case. As a result, Missouri’s prison population has become artificially inflated (8th highest per capita) and the Department of Corrections’ budget has increased $63 million during the Nixon administration.

“When you deprive the marginalized and the disadvantaged of their basic right to counsel after arrest and then willingly enlarge prisons by tens of millions each year, you create the unmistakable impression that poor Missourians don’t have a fair shot in the criminal justice system. And I think that sentiment is contributing to a lot of the hostility and resentment throughout the country right now,” said Michael Barrett. “And the Governor’s repeated denial of funds to the organization that ensures a fair system of justice is certainly contributing to that.”

The Missouri State Public Defender provides legal representation throughout the state to indigent clients in criminal cases. To learn more about the Missouri State Public Defender, visit: www.publicdefender.mo.gov.

End of news release