SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court denied Wednesday that a personality conflict led her to fire all members of a commission that governs the Office of Public Defense Services and appoints to its executive director.
Critics for years have said that Oregon’s public defense system is in crisis with too few attorneys to represent people accused of crimes.
Chief Justice Martha Walters said last week that Chief Executive Officer Stephen Singer had verbally attacked her during a meeting, blaming him for failing to pull his agency out of a crisis.
The Public Defense Services Commission decided last week not to fire Singer. Walters then took the unprecedented step Monday of firing all nine voting members of the commission. He invited those who wanted to stay to reapply for their posts and then reinstated five of them and appointed four new ones.
Former commission member Thomas Christ said Walters wants Singer removed and that he believes she “decided to just pack the commission with people who will vote the way she wants on that issue,” the Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Cristo was among those fired on Monday and was not re-elected.
The American Bar Association found that Oregon has only 31% of the public defenders it needs. Hundreds of defendants who cannot afford an attorney have been unable to obtain public defenders to represent them.
Walters is an ex officio, non-voting permanent member of the commission. At the reconstituted commission’s first meeting on Wednesday, Walters said, “We need to move forward with the next phase of our work to create systemic change and immediate support for those serving and those in need of public defense services in Oregon.”
“I know emotions are still running high for some,” Walters said. “And there have been accusations and suggestions that personality conflicts were what prompted my decision. That is counterproductive and must stop.”
The commission then went into executive session “to consider disciplinary action or hear complaints against a public official and to review and evaluate (Singer’s) job performance.”
Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that Walters has described Singer as unreliable, unnecessarily combative and slow to address the state’s public defense crisis. Others in the public defense community have defended Singer as a leader taking on reform of a broken system, while acknowledging that he can be abrasive.
Oregon’s public defender system is the only one in the nation that relies entirely on contractors: large nonprofit defense firms, smaller groups of cooperating private defense attorneys who hire cases, and independent attorneys who can take cases at will.
But some firms and private attorneys periodically decline to take new cases due to workload. Low payment rates and late payments from the state are also a disincentive.
Criminal defendants in Oregon 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.
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