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Overwhelmed Mo. Public Defender Office Appoints Governor To Handle A Case

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Missouri, the director of the state's public defender's office is so frustrated over a lack of funding that he's done something unusual. He's assigned a case to a lawyer outside his office, and that lawyer is the governor. As Elle Moxley of member station KCUR reports, the public defender is relying on a state law that he says lets him appoint any lawyer to represent a poor client.

ELLE MOXLEY, BYLINE: The budget woes in Michael Barrett's office are ongoing - too many poor people needing public defenders, too few lawyers to represent them. So on Tuesday he assigned a case to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a member of the Missouri Bar Association. In a letter sent to Nixon's office, Barrett claims he has the authority to do just that, but it's unlikely the governor will actually defend anyone. University of Missouri - Kansas City law professor Sean O'Brien says the letter itself is a publicity stunt.

SEAN O'BRIEN: I mean it's a gutsy move on the director's part. And I understand why he did it. And I actually applaud him for doing it. I think it makes an important point, but it's not a solution.

MOXLEY: O'Brien says it's hard to overstate how dire the situation is right now for those who provide legal representation for the state's indigent defendants. He estimates Missouri would need to immediately hire 200 lawyers to provide any sort of meaningful relief.

O'BRIEN: People constantly say, thank God for Mississippi so we wouldn't be 50th out of 50.

MOXLEY: Last month Nixon blocked funding that state lawmakers approved for public defenders, saying the state had failed to meet revenue projections. Now Barrett is suing the Democratic governor to try to get him to release those funds. But Governor Nixon says the numbers in Barrett's letter don't tell the whole story. He says at a time when Missouri had to reduce the size of government by more than 5000 employees, funding for public defenders actually went up by about 15 percent.

JAY NIXON: In the government I lead with the fiscal discipline I do, an agency that's received a double-digit increase is a significant additional investment.

MOXLEY: Ruth Petsch, a public defender in Kansas City, says the job can already be overwhelming.

RUTH PETSCH: I think that's a real fear for people in my office. I didn't find that witness, or I didn't find that information. And I'm pushed to trial 'cause this is the date, and I don't - I'm not going to do the job I should do.

MOXLEY: It's unlikely that Nixon, a former prosecutor, will ever have to defend anyone. He argues the summons isn't legal.

NIXON: The law's clear. The state public defender's office does not have the authority to appoint individual people as legal counsel.

MOXLEY: If Nixon is eventually assigned a case, it would likely have to wait until January when he'll leave office due to term limits. For NPR News, I'm Elle Moxley in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.