Missouri Governor Gets a New Responsibility

As a Cubs fan, I think the most hilarious news out of Missouri is that the Cardinals are nine games back in the NL Central. The second most hilarious piece of news involves the governor.

Under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, anyone accused of a crime has the right “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” If a defendant can’t afford an attorney — in legal speak, he’s “indigent” — then the state is required to appoint one for him.

These court-appointed public defenders, as one might imagine, carry almost unbearable caseloads due to the high number of indigent defendants. The situation in Missouri is particularly dire — by some accounts Missouri ranks 49th in the country — in part because Missouri’s governor, Jay Nixon, has consistently cut funding to the state’s public defenders.

While Governor Nixon’s budget cuts have certainly annoyed Michael Barret, the director of Missouri’s public defender office, Mr. Barrett had a trump card in his pocket. Under Missouri law — and lots of states have a similar rule — any attorney in the state can be appointed to represent an indigent defendant if no public defenders are available. And wouldn’t you believe it, Governor Nixon happens to be an attorney.

So Mr. Barrett, who has the power to appoint an attorney to a criminal case, wrote to Governor Nixon to give him a tongue-lashing over the budget cuts and to let him know he had a new case:

Therefore, pursuant to Section 600.042.5 and as Director of the Missouri State Public 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.

There is no word yet on whether Governor Nixon intends to argue for more budget cuts to the public defender office.