Public defenders have an incredibly difficult job everywhere. Despite being a necessary feature of a constitutional justice system, states routinely underfund and disrespect public defenders and leave indigent clients to suffer.
So when Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters fired all nine members of the state’s entire Public Defense Services Commission citing frustration “that hundreds of defendants charged with crimes and who cannot afford an attorney have been unable to obtain public defenders to represent them,” it nearly broke the bullshitometer I keep on my desk.
The Chief reappointed five of the members and then appointed four new members of her own choosing. As its first order of business, the new Commission fired the Public Defense Services executive director Steven Singer. But see, that’s the thing… the Chief tried to get the Commission to fire Singer last week and didn’t get enough votes, so the Chief responded by nuking the whole Commission and installing one that would fire him.
That sounds like a deeply troubling abuse of power, but the Oregon criminal justice system is notably janky — it was the last state to allow non-unanimous criminal convictions before SCOTUS issued the Ramos opinion — and the Chief Justice actually does have the power to unilaterally build a puppet Commission for public defense.
Singer has his own issues — the Chief Justice claims he verbally abused her and other Oregon politicians have reportedly asked him to step down — so there may be legitimate reasons to relieve him. It’s just that none of those reasons would seem to be “because he’s the reason the public defender system is stressed.”
Indeed, finding the cause of the public defender crisis in the state might just require firing the mirrors and replacing them with hand-picked reflective devices. A thread from Alec Karakatsanis, the Founder and Executive Director of the Civil Rights Corps:
If the state’s response to every minor infraction is to warehouse people until an underfunded public defender system catches up with them, a change in leadership isn’t going to magic up different results.
I suppose it’s possible that the system could force public defenders to provide less effective assistance and show up unprepared just to rubberstamp that the state provided a lawyer, but that’s neither a functional public defense system nor particularly compliant with the state or federal constitutions. One would hope the director of the program — old or new — would forcefully refuse to comply with such a plan.
Again, maybe Singer deserved to be fired for other reasons, but shedding crocodile tears for what the courts have done to strain the system seems cruelly disingenuous. As noted jurist Judge Judy might say, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.”
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.