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Directors of Missouri Bar, Public Defender system resign

Directors of Missouri Bar, Public Defender system resign

A Missouri lawyer power couple has announced resignations from their respective positions as executive director of The Missouri Bar and director of the Missouri State Public Defender System.

Sebrina Barrett, who has served as executive director of The Missouri Bar since 2013, announced her resignation to the staff and board of governors on Wednesday, according to Farrah Fite, the bar’s spokeswoman.

Sebrina and Michael Barrett
Sebrina and Michael Barrett

Her husband, Michael Barrett, resigned as head of the state public defender system on Monday. He has been in the role since 2015.

The couple has plans to relocate to New York, where they previously lived before moving to Missouri in 2011.

Barrett is joining the Adirondack Mountain Club in New York as its executive director in November, according to a release from the organization. The nonprofit is focused on environmental advocacy in New York.

Fite said Sebrina Barrett expects to remain in Missouri at least through the end of the year.

“It has been an honor to work with such dedicated and caring board members and officers, current and past, as we have helped lawyers even better serve their clients,” Sebrina Barrett said in a statement.

“The activities of The Missouri Bar [are] supported by a highly skilled and professional team, and it has been my honor and pleasure to serve alongside each of them,” she said.

Missouri Bar President Tom Bender said he’s excited for the couple.

“We all go through changes in our lives and we go in different directions, but it sounds like they’ve got an exciting future ahead of them,” he said. “I’m pleased for them, and I’m sure they’ll do well.”

He said the bar will be working in the coming weeks to start the process of finding a successor.

“It’s always hard to replace a good executive director, but we’ve been down this path before, and we’ve got a process in place we’re implementing, and we’ll start to find good candidates in the near future,” he said.

Sebrina Barrett’s departure will deprive her eventual successor of the smooth transition she enjoyed when she took the job. Barrett joined The Missouri Bar in February 2011 as the deputy of the organization’s then-executive director, Keith Birkes. Birkes, who held the position for 27 years, had announced his retirement in 2009 but didn’t leave until the end of 2012, deliberately giving Barrett nearly two years to understand and adjust to the new role.

Barrett is a Missouri native and a 1999 graduate of the University of Missouri, where she majored in agricultural journalism. She earned her law degree from Southern Illinois University in 2002, then clerked for then-Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff. Prior to joining The Missouri Bar, she worked for the New York State Bar Association for five years.

In August, she was recognized for her work with the National Association of Bar Executives. She received the 2018 President’s Award for Excellence. In 2015, Missouri Lawyers Media presented her with the Enterprise award at its annual Women’s Justice Awards.

Michael Barrett would not immediately comment on his resignation, when reached by phone Thursday.

H.Riley Bock, an attorney in New Madrid and the chair of the Public Defender Commission, said Barrett informed him of his resignation on Monday morning. Bock said the commission is beginning the process of finding a successor for Barrett but that interviews probably wouldn’t occur until after the first of the year. The commission comprises six volunteer members from around the state.

Bock said he believed Barrett’s resignation had nothing to do with his work and praised his handling of the director’s job.

“He’s focused on the mission of the system,” Bock said. “But also he’s focused on the well-being of the employees.”

Michael Barrett previously served as deputy general counsel in Gov. Jay Nixon’s office before becoming general counsel for the public defender system and later its director.

He began his legal career as an assistant public defender in New York. He also worked with the New York State Assembly as assistant counsel to the New York State Commission on Sentencing Reform.

During his tenure with the public defender system in Missouri, Barrett has been a staunch advocate for public defense, raising public awareness of the need to adequately fund the work of defenders.

In 2016, he made national news by responding to a $3.5 million budget cut to his office by appointing Nixon — who was at the time still serving as governor — as counsel in the criminal case of a Jefferson City man. A judge later ruled that state law didn’t permit the appointment.

As Barrett wraps up his time in the position, the system continues to grapple with funding challenges and concerns that defenders are overburdened by their caseloads.

The system is still in the midst of litigation from the ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center alleging “multiple and longstanding system deficiencies” in public-defender services in Missouri.

In May, Barrett and the ACLU filed a proposed consent judgment outlining reforms of public-defender practices and caseloads. Among other things, the settlement calls for a caseload standard based on a 2,080-hour work-year.

The filing prompted Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to attempt to rejoin the lawsuit his office had worked to dismiss previously. A federal judge refused to allow the office to do so in July, prompting an appeal from the AG’s office.

In Jackson County, the district defender is appealing a ruling denying caseload relief to her office. The decision could potentially allow Missouri’s appellate courts to rule on the substance of a 2013 law that bars public defenders who believe their caseloads are too high from declining to handle new cases.

Missouri Lawyers Media also recognized Barrett’s work with a Missouri Lawyers Award in 2017.

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