Missouri public defender system sues over funding cuts

Gov. Jay Nixon's decision to withhold money from the state Public Defender system (MSPD) violated the Missouri Constitution, Public Defender Michael Barrett and the state's Public Defender Commission argued in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The 11-page lawsuit said Nixon's withholding order, issued a week ago, violated the constitutional "separation of the powers of the Executive and Judicial branches."

The suit asks the Cole County Circuit Court to declare Nixon's budget withholdings unconstitutional and void, order the withheld money to be released for spending and enjoin Nixon from further withholdings from the public defenders office appropriations unless they are part of a reduction to the entire state budget.

The case was assigned to Judge Dan Green. No hearings have been scheduled.

Nanci Gonder, Attorney General Chris Koster's spokeswoman, said Wednesday afternoon the office couldn't comment on the lawsuit because they had not been served a copy of it.

Missouri's public defender system was created as an independent department of the state judicial branch, the lawsuit said, noting the system "is not a state agency" subject to the governor's power to withhold money.

While the governor generally restricted a total of 1 percent of state general revenue, the lawsuit said, he decreased the public defender budget by 8.5 percent.

Barrett noted Missouri's public defender system already is the second least-funded public defense system in the country.

"No general revenue was restricted from the governor's own budget," he added. "Make no mistake about it, this is not fiscal discipline. This is politics."

The lawsuit argued Nixon's $3.5 million withhold from the MSPD's $41,497,581 appropriation directly and immediately harmed the system's operations, because it "is unable to proceed with case contracting to reduce caseload to ethically permissible levels, unable to fill vacant attorney positions, limited in its ability to pay litigation costs and unable to provide necessary technology for effective client representation."

The state public defender system provides legal representation to indigent clients in Missouri criminal cases, where there's a possibility of jail or prison time.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled poor people have a constitutional right to that defense.

"Throughout his two terms in office, Gov. Nixon has seldom passed on an opportunity to weaken a poor person's constitutional right to counsel," Barrett said in the news release.

"In 2009, Gov. Nixon vetoed legislation that would have provided caseload relief to the public defender system without additional funding, then characterizing the problem as a lack of resources."

When lawmakers provided resources in the 2014-15 fiscal year (FY) budget, Barrett said, "The governor withheld the funding, then cut MSPD's budget by $3.47 million in FY 2016.

"Now again, in FY 2017, the governor has deprived MSPD of the $3.5 million approved by the Legislature for caseload relief."

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste told the News Tribune: "It is important to note that over the past seven fiscal years (from FY 2010 through FY 2016), expenditures for the Office of Public Defender have increased by more than 9 percent at the same time that the governor has had to reduce the state workforce by more than 5,000 positions in order to balance the budget."

Riley Bock, the Public Defender Commission's chairman, said the FY 2017 withholding coupled with the lingering results of previous shortfalls, "we cannot maintain the system statewide through this fiscal year.

"The Missouri Public Defender System, because of inadequate funding, is beginning to unravel."

Earlier coverage, posted at 12:45 p.m.:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri's public defender agency is suing over what it calls Gov. Jay Nixon's unconstitutional decision to withhold $3.5 million in funds for defending the indigent.

The Missouri State Public Defender system and the state's Public Defender Commission filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Cole County.

The plaintiffs allege that Nixon has cut its budget by 8.5 percent while no general revenue was restricted from Nixon's own budget.

System's director Michael Barrett calls the move political and accuses Nixon of trying to "weaken public defense to the point it can no longer perform its independent function within the criminal justice system." Barrett also says Nixon is attempting "to transform our democracy into a monarchy."

Messages left Wednesday with representatives of Nixon and the state's attorney general were not immediately returned.