Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon assigned as a public defender

The Missouri Public Defender's Office says Gov. Jay Nixon has not properly funded indigent defense.

Story highlights

  • The Missouri Public Defender's office cites insufficient staff as the reason
  • The governor's office says the public defender does not have the authority to tap him

(CNN)Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has been ordered to serve as a public defender by the State Public Defender's office, which cites a budget crisis in tapping a rarely used state statute that allows the office to draft any state bar member.

In an open letter to the governor, Public Defender Director Michael Barrett says funding for his office has been "repeatedly cut," and that the caseload exceeds the budget to hire additional public defenders.
    Hence his decision to exercise a statute that allows the Public Defender's office to "delegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri" in extraordinary circumstances.
    Nixon is an attorney and member of the State of Missouri bar association.
    "As Director of the Missouri State Defender System tasked with carrying out the State's obligation to ensure that poor people who face incarceration are afforded competent counsel in their defense, I hereby appoint you, Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Bar No. 29603, to enter your appearance as counsel of record in the attached case," Barrett wrote.
    Nixon's office, however, says the public defender's office does not have the legal authority to appoint the governor as counsel.
    "[The governor] has always supported indigent criminal defendants having legal representation. That is why under his administration, the state public defender has seen a 15% increase in funding at the same time that other state agencies have had to tighten their belts and full-time state employment has been reduced by 5,100," press secretary Scott Holste told CNN.
    The director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, Peter Joy, says it's unclear whether the governor can be forced to serve.
    "I don't think the governor would represent someone unless there was a court order, ordering him to do so," Joy says.
    Joy says in some instances across the country, members of the bar have been tapped to help cover public defenders, although there have been challenges.
    "Missouri is 49th in the per capita funding for its indigent defense services. We're basically almost in dead last. I think [the letter] is driving home the fact that the governor has some responsibilities here as a governor and as a lawyer," Joy says.