Missouri's top public defender says his office is so overworked that he has had to assign a case to a lawyer who can do something about the problem: Gov. Jay Nixon. Michael Barrett says he assigned the assault case to the Democratic governor under a rule that allows him to assign cases to "any member of the state bar of Missouri" in extraordinary circumstances, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. "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," says Barrett, who complains that Missouri ranks 49 out of 50 states for public defender funding and that the system's lawyers now have to sometimes deal with more than 200 cases at a time.
Barrett says that a recent $1 million funding increase was nowhere near enough to hire the hundreds of extra attorneys the system needs, and the case overload is depriving low-income defendants of their rights. "The only thing that binds us as Americans is what is afforded us under the Bill of Rights," he tells the Washington Post. "People may not have good schools, good jobs, or basic necessities. But they are afforded liberty," he says. "It's my job to make sure that before that liberty is taken away they are afforded a competent defense." The governor plans to fight the appointment: A spokesman says it is "well established" that the public defender doesn't have the authority to appoint private counsel, especially when the counsel does not consent, the Post-Dispatch reports. (Read more Missouri stories.)