Stephen Singer, executive director of Public Defense Services, sent Marion County Presiding Judge Tracy Prall a harsh email Monday, telling her to remove his employees from the cases. As Singer stated, “we need to get these unjustified and pointless appointments canceled immediately so that we can all focus on the business at hand which includes locating attorneys to defend unrepresented individuals in Marion County.” I beg you to do something to stop this unneeded, inefficient, and improper action by the judges in your court. Please. “
Earlier this week, the director of the beleaguered agency that oversees Oregon’s public defense system accused a judge of “unnecessary, ineffective, and unethical conduct” for appointing some of his employees to handle criminal cases.
About 16 misdemeanor and felony cases will be handled by state appellate lawyers and the general counsel of Oregon Public Defense Services in Marion County, Oregon, this month.
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As a result of a lack of public defenders, hundreds of defendants across the state are without legal representation. Stephen Singer, executive director of Public Defense Services, sent Marion County Presiding Judge Tracy Prall a harsh email Monday, telling her to remove his employees from the cases.
There needs to be an urgent effort by everyone to have these arbitrary and counterproductive appointments withdrawn in order for Singer and her colleagues to get back to recruiting attorneys to serve Marion County’s unrepresented clients. “Please, please do something to stop the judges in your court from engaging in this unneeded, ineffective, and improper behavior.”
While the agency’s own in-house attorneys focus on appellate law and lack trial expertise, they are freaked out by the potential of being assigned cases they lack the time or experience to address.
There are no public defenders employed by the Oregon Public Defense Services. Nonprofit law companies, such as the Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland and Hillsboro, and independent lawyers who take on public defense cases are supported by a $355.9 million budget.
“It is also wasting enormous amounts of time and resources among their supervisors, as well as other OPDS lawyers, including myself, addressing their emotional needs, not to mention litigating the question of their appointment at both the trial and appeal levels,” Singer wrote. In other words, “OPDS is already short-staffed and overburdened – to the point of collapse.”
The general counsel of his organization, Eric Deitrick, should handle all of the pending cases in Marion County until they are assigned to other lawyers, he requested.
Despite being on the job for six months and inheriting the public defense problem, Singer did not respond to an email.
Singer’s communication to Prall included Chief Justice Martha Walters of the Oregon Supreme Court. According to a Walters spokesman, the chief justice was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.
Oregon’s public defense system has been plagued by long-standing issues for some time now. Indigent defendants who have not been assigned an attorney are suing the state in a class-action lawsuit. In Multnomah County alone, 424 people have been charged with crimes, and nine of them are now being held in custody.
56 destitute defendants in Marion County, including 22 who are already incarcerated, lack legal representation, according to the court. Lawyers who work for the state’s public defense department are now refusing to sign up for a new contract.
Thousands of people around the state have declared a state of emergency, vowing not to sign the contract, a move that will only exacerbate the current problem.
A requirement that lawyers practice in neighboring counties has been noted by critics as one of the most problematic aspects of the new law. Attorneys in rural regions, who would have to travel considerable distances to appear in a nearby county, arguing that the rule is unworkable.
Oregon Public Defense Services has already received objections to the contract from public defenders in Coos, Josephine, and Washington counties this week.
Olcott Thompson, the executive director of the Marion County Association of Defenders, wrote to Singer on Monday to express his displeasure with the growing workloads of attorneys and the inability to adequately compensate them for work they have no prior knowledge of.
Thompson commented that the situation was in a state of disarray.
About 10 lawyers have been laid go in the four years he has been in charge of the consortium. It’s difficult to hire, he noted, due to the amount of effort and remuneration involved.
According to the contract with the state, public defense attorneys in Marion County make around $190,000 per year working full-time. He estimated that around half of the money was spent on overhead, bar dues, and other office-related costs.
Singing made reference to the contract in his contact with Prall. In order to ensure that his organization has attorneys in courtrooms across Oregon as of July 1, he urged her to sign the agreements as soon as possible.
He assured Prall, “This is not a problem for the future.” “Now is the time!”
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Marion County judges “are complying with their constitutional and legislative requirements” to provide “appropriate counsel to impoverished defendants,” Prall wrote to Singer. The Director of OPDS is just being asked to do the same.”
The singer was instructed to provide the judge with a list of names of attorneys who are willing to be appointed by him, but the judge remained focused on obtaining representation for the defendants.
Judges cannot be excused from exercising their constitutional and statutory responsibilities because of the failure of Singer and Oregon Public Defense Services to do so, she added.
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