Opinion/Editorial from Sen. Bob Dixon

Opinion/Editorial from Sen. Bob Dixon

Leadership finds a way. When things go wrong in government, like anywhere, it is human nature to assign responsibility for failure to others. So let me say, as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the current constitutional crisis in Missouri is my responsibility. I own it.

The 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, says in part, “the accused shall enjoy the right to …. have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence [sic].” There’s not a more foundational role of government than abiding by the principles outlined in the Bill of Rights.

Unfortunately, we’re failing our citizens. Some will say with a sneer, “…but we are not failing our ‘best’ citizens. They’re criminals!” Some forget how important it is… to all of us… that all are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

My colleagues and I have tried to fix the problem; but trying without succeeding is still failure. As explanation for the constitutional crisis, and not an excuse, let me provide some context.

In 2014, my colleagues and I worked with the Missouri Bar to revise the state’s Criminal Code. Reforms were included to reduce the number of cases qualifying for a taxpayer-funded attorney. Minor offenses that clog jails and courts were reclassified. Other factors were streamlined to provide relief. This was progress!

This year, my colleagues and I worked with the governor to make critical clarifications and guarantee seamless implementation of the new code, beginning next January. Working together, we got it done.

It’s been well-established Missouri’s public defender system is not functioning properly. In 2009, Missouri’s was the second-lowest-funded system in the country. A 2014 study[1] found that Missouri needed 270 more attorneys to meet its case volume. This has only gotten worse.

Because of a $1.5 million deficit, State Public Defender Michael Barrett hasn’t been replacing attorneys when they leave. They’re down roughly 30 employees as of July, while caseloads increased 12 percent. These circumstances cast a light of understanding on his recent effort to put the sitting governor to work for a day as a temp.

In 2013, my colleagues and I added funding to the system and passed House Bill 215, a pilot program that mirrors what county commissioners in my District are proposing now…. outsourcing minor offenses to private counsel. The governor signed HB 215, and yet failure persists.

I partially wish the governor had accepted Barrett’s appointment to serve as a public defender. Doing so would’ve been symbolic, demonstrating a keen understanding of the intense problem and endearing him to state employees who are stretched beyond their capabilities.

But let’s be real. It’s not popular to spend public money on people such as those who can’t afford representation, and a sitting governor could “win” the case for his assigned defendant accused of driving while intoxicated, and still “lose” in the court of public opinion. Besides, it’s a clear conflict of interest since he could potentially pardon his client if he lost the case.

The governor of our state has a more important responsibility in this matter, and that’s why I’ve asked him to call a Special Session concurrent with Veto Session next month. We could also address the needed DWI fix, resulting from Stiers v. Director of Revenue last January, which died during the final hours of session in May.

We haven’t failed until we’ve given up. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get back to work.

[1] American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. (2014, June). The Missouri Project: A Study of the Missouri Public Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards With a National Blueprint. In RubinBrown LLP (Ed.),