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Missouri Governor, Who Vetoed Relief for Public Defenders, Appointed as Public Defender

Pressure burdens Missouri's public defenders 1:24

In a classic performance of political theater, the director of Missouri's public defender's office has appointed Gov. Jay Nixon to represent an indigent defendant after the governor vetoed a bill to cap public defenders' caseloads.

Michael Barrett — who as the state public defender runs the office that provides attorneys for defendants who can't afford them — complained in a letter to Nixon that the veto last month would only worsen the burden on his office, which he said is already woefully understaffed and underfunded.

The governor has "repeatedly cut funding for an indigent defense system that continues to rank 49th in the U.S. with a budget that the consumer price index indicates has less value now than it did in 2009," Barrett wrote.

And then he outlined his solution: assign Nixon to a case.

"Given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it," Barrett wrote.

Missouri public defenders face uphill battle 1:10

Scott Holste, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement that Nixon "has always supported indigent criminal defendants having legal representation."

"That being said, it is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel," Holste said.

Holste cited a section of Missouri law to prove that only a judge can appoint a private lawyer as a public defender if no staff lawyers are available.

That section, however, doesn't actually say that only judges can appoint defenders. It simply lays out the circumstances under which a judge may appoint one.

It turns out that a separate section of state law, 600.042.1.5(1), explicitly gives the public defender that authority:

IMAGE: Missouri public defender statute
Missouri Statute 600.042.1.5(1). Missouri General Assembly

According to the State Bar Association, Nixon, a Democrat in his last year in office, has been a fully qualified lawyer registered as an active member of the bar since 1981.

Details of the case Nixon was given weren't available in the version of the letter Barrett released publicly other than that it's in Cole County.

(An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Nixon as a Republican. He is a Democrat.)