By Elise Schmelzer —

Fed up with what they say is “reprehensible” underfunding, Missouri public defenders are calling out their governor by forcing the man they blame for a lack of resources to take a case of his own.

The state’s top public defender laid out his grievances in a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon: A vetoed bill that would have lightened public defenders’ caseloads. Repeated budget cuts. Unfairly withholding money allotted to the office.

Using a power granted to him in a single line of state law, Missouri’s top public defender appointed Nixon as attorney for a central Missouri man charged with assault. But the decision has little to do with the man’s case — it’s an attention-grabbing cry for help in a state where public defenders have long said they are overworked and underfunded.

“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,” Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, wrote in a letter to the governor.

Missouri law allows the director of the public defender’s office to appoint a member of the state bar — any member — to represent someone who can’t afford a private lawyer. In theory, Barrett said, the law was created so that people’s constitutional right to a defense could be fulfilled even during hard times.

For the public defender’s office, he said, that hard time is happening right now.

“When you’re in dire straits, you have to use all the tools available to you,” he told the Post.

[[I’m a public defender. It’s impossible for me to do a good job representing my clients.]]

As far as Barrett knows, it’s the first time anyone has called upon a governor to serve as a public defender. It may seem extreme, he said, but it’s necessary to bring attention to what he calls a “reprehensible” lack of funding.

Despite a $4.5 million budget increase granted by the Missouri legislature in June — much less than the $23.1 million requested by the public defender’s office — the office doesn’t have enough money to meet costs, Barrett said. Certainly not enough to hire the 270 additional attorneys the state needs, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Barrett hadn’t heard from Nixon by late Wednesday night, and the governor did not respond to requests for comment from The Post or any other media outlet.

In Missouri, public defenders often juggle more than a hundred cases at a time, Barrett said. And when a colleague leaves (the office has a 15 percent turnover rate) their caseload is distributed to those who remain. In the past year, the office’s 376 attorneys handled upward of 82,000 cases — an increase of almost 12 percent over 2014, Barrett said.

The workload causes them to spend far less time on each case than is recommended by the American Bar Association. For example, the association recommends attorneys spend about 12 hours on each misdemeanor case. On average, Missouri public defenders spend two.

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