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Michael Barrett

Missouri State Public Defender System

 

Michael BarrettMichael Barrett’s decision to assign a sitting governor to provide legal defense for an indigent criminal defendant was an appointment heard round the world in 2016.

The appointment followed Gov. Jay Nixon’s July decision to withhold $3.5 million in funds intended for the public defender system as a means to balance the budget.

The funds were part of the agency’s $45.8 million budget and were intended to allow it to contract out some cases to private attorneys when public defenders had conflicts.

Barrett, the director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, said he was aware of his authority to appoint private lawyers to handle indigent cases, but had never used it before.

“I have a real problem enlisting private attorneys who didn’t create this problem to solve it,” he said. “For that reason, I decided to use the authority to appoint the lone individual who was in the position to address the issue.”

Nixon called the appointment a publicity stunt and argued the office has seen a 15 percent funding increase in funding under his administration. He was ultimately released from the appointment when a judge ruled that state law doesn’t permit Barrett to appoint private counsel without pay.

Barrett said the goal of the appointment was to raise awareness about the level of funding for the public defender system.

“Each year they treat it as it’s an elective and go ahead and fund things that are not required,” he said. “Even with $3.5 million, we still would have been 49th in funding. One of my goals was to make sure that people were aware this was going on as a result of a lack of funding.”

Barrett said it’s also important to view public defender funding in context of the state’s overall budget.

“Policy makers and appropriators feel like they are funding us in a vacuum, that it doesn’t have implications elsewhere,” he said. “I would point out there is a reason we are 8th largest (in incarcerations) — that’s because we don’t adequately fund public defense.”

Prior to the appointment, Barrett filed suit against Nixon in Cole County, challenging Nixon’s authority to withhold funds. A judge found in favor of Nixon.

Barrett has since filed a notice of appeal to bring the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. He declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said there is a clear separation of powers issue and the case presents a constitutional issue of first impression.

“My job is to get them the resources they need to do their jobs and thus far I have failed on that,” he said.

He said access to adequate representation in criminal matters is a fundamental right of all Missourians.

“Our job at the public defender’s system is to make sure that they receive those rights and the public defenders are skilled and committed and some of the best lawyers in the state,” he said.