By Brandon Buscher, 23News Reporter

Director of the Missouri State Public Defender System Michael Barrett issued a letter Tuesday to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, ordering him to serve as a public defender in a case where a man was accused of assault.

Michael Barrett invoked Section 600.042.5 of the Missouri Constitution, which allows him the right to “delegate the legal representation of any person to any member of the state bar of Missouri.”

Governor Nixon, a former attorney general for Missouri, is still a member of the Missouri state bar.

Governor Nixon’s Office responded to the letter by saying that Director Barrett’s order is illegal.

“It is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel,” Nixon’s Press Secretary Scott Holste said in an email.

This move comes from a long period of frustration by the MSPD. The Missouri State Public Defender System has been under immense pressure to serve the state’s most indigent criminal defendants with appropriate legal representation. As it stands, Missouri is ranked 49th nationally in per capita funding for defense services offered to citizens who do not have the means to pay for legal representation.

In the past year, the number of cases MSPD has taken on has risen by 12 percent.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a 2014 study found that MSPD needs to add around 270 more attorneys to handle its massive caseload.

“In light of the fact that our resources only enable us to try 1% of our cases to juries, it is no wonder that our caseload continues to rise,” deputy director of the MSPD Joel Elmer said in an email. “Our clients are left with little choice other than to plead guilty, frequently their only means to getting out of jail.”

MSPD’s impossible workload arises from a series of strict budget cuts by Nixon. In 2009, Governor Nixon vetoed a Senate Committee Substitute for Senate Bill No. 37, a bill to provide the necessary funding to the public defender’s office to hire attorneys.

Governor Nixon was consistent in his restriction of resources to public defense. In 2015, he withheld $3.47 million in funds for MSPD. Most recently, Governor Nixon cited fiscal discipline as a reason to cut the MSPD budget by 8.5 percent this year.

Because of the extreme work conditions the MSPD is under, with each lawyer in the department’s employment handling 125 to 200 cases all by themselves, MSPD feels unable to fulfill their duties as public defenders.

“We are unable to perform the important function of acting as a check against government overreach and are unable to deter the filing of unwarranted charges,” Elmer said in an email.

Missouri struggles with preventing impoverished citizens from being systematically incarcerated, with the state’s prison population being the eighth highest per capita in the United States.

To make matters worse, Missouri’s criminal representation guidelines match the federal poverty guidelines, stating that if someone has an income of $11,000 per year, they are not considered indigent enough to be appointed a public defender. In other words, some Missourians may qualify for food stamps but not legal representation.

Director Barrett’s letter referenced the U.S. Department of Justice’s finding that poor black children are being systematically deprived of their rights in St. Louis County due in large part to the public defender deficit.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens, “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State.”

Because of the lack of resources and funding MSPD has, they are only allowed to try 1 percent  of their cases to juries, leaving many citizens torn from their constitutional right to be tried before their peers.

MSPD strongly supports their director’s decision to order Governor Nixon into action as a means of bringing more urgency to this current crisis.

About Aviva Okeson-Haberman

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