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Oath of Office Remarks: Michael Barrett
Thank you Judge Russell – members of the court. Friends and family who took the time to be here with me today, thank you. It’s not every day you get sworn in by a chief judge.
I would like to start my brief remarks by recognizing members of the Public Defender Commission who have the collective obligation to oversee the work of the Missouri Public Defender System:
- Chair, Douglas Copeland, who is a partner at Copeland, Thompson and Farris in Clayton and a former President of the Missouri Bar;
- Vice Chair, Riley Bock, former New Madrid County Prosecutor;
- Christa Hogan, Executive Director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association;
- Charles Jackson, career law enforcement officer with the state highway patrol and former Director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety; and
- Craig Chval, current counsel with Veterans United in Columbia and former prosecutor and Missouri assistant attorney general.
Whether it is with a not-for-profit or in the public sector, this committed group of commissioners represents more than a 100 years of service to the people of Missouri, and I would like to thank the Governor for making such thoughtful appointments.
I would also like to recognize former Director Marty Robinson and outgoing Director Cat Kelly. Director Kelly has dedicated more than 30 years of her life to providing legal services to poor people in this state. And Director Robinson, who has protected our liberties at home and abroad, continues to serve the state as a General in the Missouri National Guard. This state owes the both of you a great deal of gratitude.
Lastly, my supportive family. My wife Sebrina and my son Mason.
It is nothing short of an honor to take the oath of office in this City of Jefferson, with a statue of Thomas Jefferson out across the street in front of the beautiful state capitol building – the Virginian who penned the Declaration of Independence, the man who commissioned Lewis and Clark to find a transcontinental route and take account of the land’s abundant natural resources.
And though it would be fitting to make Jefferson the focus of these remarks, I am instead going to spend what few minutes I have on one of Jefferson’s early political rivals.
By the time the Continental Congress was assembled, each colony fell into one of three groups in terms of their desired relationship with Great Britain. There were the Tories, those colonists who wanted to remain subject to the King.
There were those states that valued American independence but feared taking an aggressive stance against the King. And finally, there were those who advocated for complete separation, and suggested that war may be the only answer if Britain did not voluntarily abdicate its hold on America’s sovereignty.
For this last group, there was no more fervent supporter than John Adams’ Massachusetts Bay Colony. Indeed there was no place in the colonies so hostile to the crown, its policies on taxation and tariffs, and the forced quartering of British troops in the homes of American patriots.
On a daily basis, tempers simmered between colonists and the armed British soldiers as they passed each other along Boston’s cobblestone streets. And so it was perhaps not surprising when, on March 5, 1770, a remark over money owed to a local wig maker escalated into shots fired by British soldiers, killing 5 patriots and injuring 6, in what became known as the incident on King Street, or the Boston Massacre.
Though the events were very much tragic, for the Sons of Liberty like John and Sam Adams and Paul Revere, they saw it as a compelling act of oppression that could fuel anti-British sentiment throughout the colonies.
They saw it as a potential change agent in their struggle to secure the natural rights of man. In many ways, it was emblematic of Ferguson, of North Charleston, of Cleveland, of Staten Island.
For Governor Thomas Hutchinson, a popular figure despite his support for British policies, the shootings suddenly placed him in something of an immediate crisis. He was confronted by angry crowds calling for action, and was even forced to act hastily by giving into demands for British troop removal.
Hutchinson assured the crowds that justice would be done and begged for calm.
The Governor was determined to see that Captain Preston, the ranking officer who was accused of ordering his men to shoot, would receive a fair trial.
He wanted to make sure that there could be no grounds for retaliation from the British, and that moderates would not be compelled into the Patriot cause by a propaganda-fueled conviction that operated outside the bounds of the law.
The only problem was, the Governor couldn’t find a lawyer to represent Captain Preston and his men. Not surprisingly, those first courted were members of the Bar who were loyal to the King, those who understood how British soldiers were routinely taunted, how the colonists often threw snowballs and street rubble to incite them. All such counselors were asked, and all refused.
It quickly became clear that Governor Hutchinson would have to search elsewhere to appoint counsel?
John Adams was as committed to freedom as he was personally ambitious. He understood that taking the case would not only subject him to great chastisement, it was sure to jeopardize his legal practice, and quite possibly the safety of his family. And perhaps, most importantly, the cause for independence.
Nonetheless John Adams accepted the appointment and, in turn, was compensated the modest sum of 18 guineas.
Imagine for a moment being a colonial patriot and being asked to defend a representative of the very tyranny you were fighting to overcome?
And now think of it too from Captain Preston’s perspective – the perspective of the accused. Facing death, Preston soon learned that the only one willing to represent him was an American patriot?
What’s important here is that the essence of the Sixth Amendment in the Bill of Rights is that governments should not be able to deprive someone of their liberty, regardless of who they are, without due process of law and without providing that person a competent attorney.
John Adams risked not only his reputation for these ideals, but the fate of the Republic, once stating that a defense lawyer ought to be the last thing an accused person should be without in a free country.
Public Defenders throughout this state, from West Plains to Kirksville, from Caruthersville to Kansas City, work tirelessly, and in unheralded fashion, to make sure that these essential principles of liberty endure.
In turn, they are compensated the modern day sum of 18 guineas so that a poor person, who may never come to know great comfort in this world, or benefit from the full promise of a democracy, will nonetheless assume equal stature to every other citizen in a court of law.
They do this because, like Adams, their sense of duty and commitment to due process far exceeds any professional ambition, desire for accolades, or security of pocket that no person would be criticized for pursuing. They do this because they understand that liberty is what binds us as Americans.
To be sure, public defenders encounter cynics daily in the court of public opinion, creating a stigma that manifests itself into questions like “why do you defend those people?” Even from our own clients, much work has to be done to build the rapport needed to overcome the fact that we look and dress very much like those representing their accuser.
Unfortunately, this stigma is exacerbated by some of the very people who take an oath to uphold the Constitution, those tasked with providing the resources so that we can guarantee this unalienable right.
Too frequently, there is greater interest in building sports stadiums or championing language that does little more than restate an existing right, than fulfilling the constitutional obligation to provide competent counsel.
This degradation of liberty has begun to show evidence of two systems of justice – one for the resourced and well connected, and the other for the least among us. The resulting carnage is a state that, according to the Department of Justice, ranks among the worst in the rate in which it incarcerates its citizens, and with no corresponding public safety gains.
History may tell us that we have walked a million miles, though it seems at times that we have hardly taken a step.
We all get the principle that government exists for man and not the other way around – to reverse that principle is tyranny. But when liberty stops being an unalienable right for all and instead serves as leverage for governments to extract fees and fines from the poor so they can maintain their own existence, tyranny has indeed made itself known.
The fight for liberty, at least for John Adams, worked out quite well, didn’t it? Something of a public defender fairy tale, really. Putting personal ambitions to the side, his conscience compels him to represent eight soldiers whose presence he thoroughly despises, for which he is paid but a pittance.
He is successful in obtaining an acquittal for six and a reduced sentence for the remaining two, before continuing on to champion the cause for American independence and later becoming the Second President of the United States. Not too shabby.
While that arc of triumph may be out of reach for the modern day public defender given the cynicism and rancor that depreciates the perceived value of what we do, it will nonetheless be the greatest honor for me to champion, not only the liberties guaranteed under the Bill of Rights for poor people in this state, but also these defenders of liberty, those who take up the fight every day.
Thank you. And thank you for coming.