Everyone deserves a fair trial. Everyone.
And one of the most important parts of a fair trial is having access to an attorney who actually knows what they are doing — someone who's willing to devote the proper time and energy to defending your innocence.
In fact, it's stated in both the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Human Rights that courts have an obligation to provide an attorney to those who can't secure their own. (Hey, did you know that lawyers can be expensive?!)
This is why public defenders — defense attorneys provided and paid for by public funds — are a thing.
But what happens when a state government decides it's tired of spending so much money on public defenders?
In Missouri, recent budget cuts to the public defender program have been frequent and severe. So the department director decided to do something pretty drastic.
In a scathing letter to Governor Jay Nixon, director Michael Barrett pointed out all the ways that the budget cuts are undermining the integrity of our legal system.
He said his attorneys' caseloads are way too high and the governor has refused to do anything about it.
"Seven years ago, your office vetoed [a Senate Bill] ... which would have provided caseload relief to an overburdened public defender system. In denying that relief, you acknowledged that MSPD was operating 'under significant stresses' and committed to working ... to fix the problem, but never did."
He explained that the cuts are affecting, most of all, poor minorities — ensuring they don't get a fair shake in our legal system.
"This action comes even after the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found that poor black children are being systematically deprived of the rights in Missouri due in large part to the lack of public defenders. Choosing in the wake of that report to further debilitate the very organization that ensures an equal system of justice only adds to the escalating sentiment that the poor and disenfranchised do not receive a fair shake in Missouri's criminal justice system."
Finally, Barrett said he only has one extreme option left if he wants his meager budget to last through the year:
"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."
Then, in an absolutely epic mic drop moment, Barrett ended the letter by exercising his authority to appoint the governor himself as counsel in an upcoming case.
Yeah, he can do that.
"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," Barrett wrote.
In other words: "You don't want to give me the resources I need to do my job? Fine. You do it then."
A representative of the governor's office said in an email that Barrett's claims are off base and that the public defender has "seen a 15 percent increase in funding."
Meanwhile, Barrett's office has "filed a lawsuit over what it calls Gov. Jay Nixon's unconstitutional decision to withhold $3.5 million in funds for defending indigent people," according to KY3.
They can sort out the exact numbers in court. And it's doubtful the governor will actually have to show up in court and argue a case.
But in the meantime, we have to applaud Michael Barrett, whose letter has gone viral for bringing some much needed attention to the issue of fair trials for all.
It's refreshing to see a public official willing to go to the mat for the people he's sworn to protect.
You can read the full letter here.