Head of Oregon’s ailing public defense system fired

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SALEM, Ore. — Even as hundreds of people charged with crimes in Oregon remain without legal representation, a commission tasked with addressing the issue fired the effort’s leader on Thursday.

The Public Defense Services Commission action capped an extraordinary week in which Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters made the unprecedented move to fire all commission members. . She then reinstated five of them while appointing four new members.

The commission voted six to two to fire the executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, Stephen Singer. A member was absent.

“That’s what happens in Third World dictatorships,” Singer told the reconstituted panel Thursday ahead of the vote. “That’s when the…parliament won’t do the chief executive’s bidding and then the dictator dismisses the parliament and sets up a new parliament that will be more flexible and do the bidding. wishes of the dictator.”

For years, critics have said Oregon’s unique public defense system is in crisis, with far too few attorneys to represent defendants who cannot afford an attorney to represent them. An American Bar Association report released in January found Oregon has just 31% of the public defenders it needs.

Singer was brought in to address the issue, and he said his ouster would take the toll on low-income people charged with a crime, who are disproportionately people of color.

“In the end, I am not a loser. You are not the losers. The Chief Justice is not the loser. The judicial system is not a loser. The real losers here are the customers,” Singer said.

He said Walters suggested recruiting volunteers, civilian attorneys, retired attorneys, retired judges and third- and fourth-year law students to deal with the backlog of unrepresented defendants. The singer said he refused.

“It is an extraordinarily reprehensible and unethical way to treat poor people accused of crimes,” he told the commission. “These are not people you can experiment on.”

“Even a criminal misdemeanor case can have significant consequences for the client and can lead to deportation,” he said. “It has implications for housing, for jobs, for education, for access to loans.”

One of the commissioners who voted against Singer’s firing was Jennifer Parrish Taylor, a black woman who is part of the Portland Urban League. She had recommended an investigation into Singer’s conduct and effectiveness, and said firing him amounted to a lack of due process, as he was unable to bring witnesses before the panel and nearly half of its members are new and unfamiliar with the situation.

She likened Singer’s predicament to low-income defendants who don’t get due process because the court system can’t find lawyers to represent them.

Oregon’s public defense system is the only one in the country that relies entirely on contractors: large nonprofit defense companies, smaller cooperative groups of private defense attorneys who contract cases and independent lawyers who can take cases at will.

Some law firms and private lawyers periodically refuse to take on new cases due to the workload. Low pay rates and late government payments are also a deterrent.

Singer, appearing before the commission via video link, called on the new commission to allow him to keep his job and said Walters – a non-voting, ex officio permanent member of the commission – threatened the commission’s independence. dismissing the commission and appointing a new one to make his offer.

“The commission and its employees, including myself, are meant to be independent of the judiciary,” Singer said.

Oregon criminal defendants who have been left without legal representation due to a shortage of public defenders filed a lawsuit in May alleging the state is violating their constitutional right to counsel and a speedy trial.

Walters said his personality clashes with Singer had nothing to do with his actions this week.

“We need to move the next phase of our work forward to create the systemic changes and immediate support for those who serve and those who need public defense services in Oregon,” she told the commission Wednesday. .

“I know the emotions are still running high for some,” Walters said. “And there were accusations and suggestions that personality clashes were what drove my decision. It’s counterproductive and needs to stop.

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