Oregon justices fire panel over lack of public defenders

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s chief justice fired all members of the Public Defense Services Commission on Monday, expressing frustration that hundreds of defendants accused of crimes and who cannot afford attorneys. They are unable to get public defenders to represent them.

The unprecedented action comes as Oregon’s unique public defender system is strained to the point of breaking. Criminal defendants in Oregon who have gone without legal representation due to a lack of public defenders filed a lawsuit in May alleging the state violated their constitutional rights to legal counsel and a speedy trial. Violating.

In a letter to commission members, Chief Justice Martha Walters pointed out that she has a duty to “ensure that Oregon public defender services comply with the Oregon Constitution, the United States Constitution, and the Oregon and National Standards of Justice.” Provide accordingly.”

“Unfortunately, it is now clear that the time has come to restructure the current commission,” he said.

Oregon’s public defender system is the only one in the nation that relies entirely on contractors: large nonprofit defense firms, small collaborative groups of private defense attorneys who contract for cases and independent attorneys who take cases on their own. can.

But some firms and private attorneys are refusing to take new cases from time to time due to workload. Poor pay rates and late payments from the state are also a disincentive. The American Bar Association found that Oregon has only 31 percent of the public defenders it needs.

Walters said “systemic change” is called for and that the commission must work with Oregon’s executive and legislative branches and the public defense community “to create a better system for public defense providers.”

The Public Defense Services Commission currently has nine members apart from Walters, who serves as the Chief Justice as a permanent member. Walters made the layoffs effective Tuesday and said any members who want to serve on the reconstituted commission should apply by Tuesday afternoon.

The commission is an independent body that controls the Office of Public Defense Services and appoints its executive director. Walters told the commission last week that Executive Director Stephen Singer failed to lead the agency out of crisis, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. The commission considered firing Singer but did not.

Commission member Thomas Christ told the newspaper that Walters wants to remove Singer and believes she has “just decided to fill the commission with people who will vote as they please on this issue.”

Commission member Steven Weeks, a U.S. public defender for the District of Oregon for 31 years and currently legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project, said he was unhappy with the chief justice’s move.

“The commission is working tirelessly on tough issues and reforms,” ​​Weeks said. “Disagreement is inevitable. I was deeply disappointed to receive the Chief Justice’s letter.

The chief justice appoints the members of the commission and may remove them in accordance with Oregon law.

“I never expected to exercise this authority, but this issue is too important, and the need for change is too urgent, to be delayed,” Walters said.

Oregon Judicial Department spokesman Todd Sprague said that to his knowledge, the entire commission has never been dismissed before.

Oregon’s backlog has led to the dismissal of dozens of cases.

Jesse Merrithew, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case, said that losing a lawyer soon after an arrest creates problems that are nearly impossible to overcome later, such as surveillance video being obtained before it is erased. Karna which can back up the case of the defendant.

Oregon’s system was underfunded and understaffed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the backlog grew amid a slowdown in court activity due to safety protocols.

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