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Public defenders sue Gov. Nixon over withholding

Claiming Governor Jay Nixon breached the constitutional “separation of powers,” the state’s public defender office sued him over the latest budget withholding.

Governor Nixon withheld $3.5 million from the office’s fiscal year 2017, after state revenue came in less than expected. The money was designed for “conflict cases” within the office, when the public defender’s office must represent multiple people suspected of the same crime. Often, public defenders from other “areas” will accept those cases, while places like Boone County utilize “panel attorneys” – private attorneys who accept a discounted rate to handle conflicts.

In its Cole County lawsuit, the public defender’s office said Gov. Nixon’s withholding violated the state constitution. The governor can only “reduce the expenditures” of the executive branch in that situation, but not the legislative or judicial ones.

The withholding means the public defenders office “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,” according to the lawsuit.

ABC 17 News covered the consternation the office, who represents those accused of crime who cannot otherwise hire their own attorney, had with its caseload, and perceived lack of funding. Retired Boone County judge Gary Oxenhandler also told ABC 17 News in April of his concern with the funding level for the office.

“I know that our public defenders work real hard, and we need to pay more attention to them, make sure they have more funds,” Oxenahandler said.

The public defender system breaks into 33 different offices in the state. David Wallis, head of Area 13 serving just Boone County, said the office employs 13 attorneys. The area utilizes a panel attorney system. However, nine surrounding counties rely on Wallis’ office for conflict cases – with travel taking them places more than an hour away. Wallis said the $3.5 million to deal with those conflict cases could help those counties either establish a panel attorney system, or hire new attorneys for their offices. That would free up many of his attorneys in Boone County to focus on local cases.

Ella Boone Conley, head of Area 12 serving Callaway, Audrain and Montgomery counties, has seven attorneys employed.

In FY 2017, the public defender’s office will receive $41.1 million, after the withholding. That’s a two-million dollar increase over last year’s budget, but $24.2 million difference from what the office requested for FY 2017.

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