Public Defenders

Missouri public defenders sue governor over withholding of funds

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Missouri’s public defender agency has sued the state’s governor for withholding $3.5 million in the agency’s funding.

According to the Associated Press, Missouri State Public Defender Michael Barrett and members of the Missouri Public Defender Commission sued Wednesday in Cole County, which includes state capital Jefferson City. They allege that Gov. Jay Nixon withheld the funds—which, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported, state law permits when revenues don’t meet estimates—for political purposes rather than to balance the budget. The restriction impedes the daily functioning of the public defenders’ offices, it says, by not only stopping the conflict counsel hiring, but also obligating the offices to leave their own attorney positions vacant.

The lawsuit (PDF) says the Missouri legislature passed an appropriations bill for the 2016-2017 fiscal year that funded multiple government agencies and officials, including salaries and expenses of elected officials, the judiciary, prosecutors and public defenders. The money for indigent defense included a $4.5 million funding increase, Barrett told the ABA Journal in June, which was aimed at paying private counsel to take conflict cases. Previously, the office had relied on public defenders from a neighboring office to handle conflict cases, which was more expensive.

But when the fiscal year began July 1, the lawsuit says, Nixon withheld $3.5 million of the Public Defender Commission’s money. That funding restriction violates the Missouri state constitution, the lawsuit says, by exceeding the governor’s authority. The Office of the State Public Defender is not a state agency from which the governor may withhold funds, the lawsuit says, but an independent office of Missouri’s judicial branch.

Furthermore, the lawsuit says, the governor is not merely controlling the timing of funding, but either denying it altogether or releasing it so late in the year that it’s a de facto denial of funds. According to Barrett, the governor’s office has restricted funds in prior budget years. In 2014-2015, for instance, the office initially withheld $3.5 million from the public defender’s office, but released $500,000 three months before the fiscal year ended, according to a fiscal year 2015 expenditure release (PDF).

And because the public defenders are part of the judicial branch, the lawsuit says, withholding the funds violates the Missouri constitution’s separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches.

In a press release from the Office of the Public Defender, Barrett said Nixon was using low revenues as a ruse to weaken indigent defense and attempting “to transform our democracy into a monarchy.” Commissioner Riley Bock said in the release that the state’s indigent defense system, “because of inadequate funding, is beginning to unravel.”

A spokesman for Nixon told the ABA Journal that budget restrictions for fiscal years 2013-2015 were eventually released, at least in part. He also notes that the budget of the Office of the Public Defender has increased by more than nine percent over the past seven fiscal years.

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