Governor starves public defender program, gets appointed to a case

Of those who defend freedom and protect our civil rights, no group is less appreciated than the public defender, a fact which allows governors to starve the system, denying rightful legal representation to the poor who are charged with crimes.

Little outrage is expended defending the defenders. And no sports team will ever attempt to cash in on the goodwill and warmth for the job by having a public defender throw out a first pitch or be introduced at half-time to the standing cheers of a thankful audience. We are selective in our embrace of freedom.

So what’s happening in Missouri is proper comeuppance.

The PD’s there, like the ones in Minnesota, struggle with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and overworked attorneys, while the governor has withheld some of the money allocated to ease the crisis.

So yesterday, using the state’s constitution, the head of the public defenders program appointed Gov. Jay Nixon to represent an indigent client.

In his letter ordering the governor to take the case, Michael Barrett, the head of the public defender system, said he doesn’t think it’s fair to burden private lawyers to solve the problem. “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,” he wrote.

Missouri spends about $6 per resident to defend the poor. That’s about half the national average, according to the Kansas City Star.

In Minnesota, the public defender system is the largest user of the state’s court system, representing about 150,000 cases per year.

According to the Legislative Auditor, the system operates with about 65 percent of the staff it should, thanks primarily to budget cuts under the Pawlenty administration in 2008-2009.

A typical public defender here has 10 minutes to meet with a client for the first time “to evaluate the case, explain the client’s options and the consequences of a conviction or plea, to discuss a possible deal with the prosecuting attorney, and allow the client to make a decision on how to proceed,” according to the Minnesota Board of Public Defense.


Archive: A day in the life of a Minnesota public defender. (NewsCut)

(h/t: Matt Lutz)