Gov. Jay Nixon, public defender

The bastardized adage “those who can’t do, delegate” is usually reserved to express contempt and derision toward those in power who are incompetent to do the job that they’ve been given and instead choose to appoint others to do their work.

The phrase takes a different meaning in Missouri, though, becoming quite literal. There is a crippling lack of funding for indigent defense in that state and public defenders literally cannot do their jobs. Their governor has vetoed bills that would lighten public defender caseloads and passed bills cutting their budget disproportionately.

So chief Public Defender Michael Barrett, when faced with the inability to do, decided to delegate: employing a never used provision in a state statute, he delegated the job of representing an indigent client to that very same governor:

As of yet, I have not utilized this provision because it is my sincere belief that it is wrong to reassign an obligation placed on the state by the 6th and 14th Amendments to private attorneys who have in no way contributed to the current crisis. However, 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.

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.

While on the one hand, this is a masterful joke by Barrett, on the other, it is a frustrated plea by a man who sees before him the continued failure of the Constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel.

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.

Low-income people charged with crimes — who are disproportionately people of color — bear the brunt of the problem when public defenders are forced to do more with less, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute.

When court-appointed lawyers don’t have enough time to spend on with cases, those who can’t afford a private lawyerwait longer for trial and get longer prison sentences and harsher plea deals.

The hope is that this appointment forces Gov. Nixon to reasses his obstructionist stance to indigent defense and maybe, for the first time, start acting like a public servant.

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