Oregon’s chief justice fired the public defense commission on Monday after its members failed to fire the program’s director.
Chief Justice Martha Walters notified the commission via writing. Any member who wants to reapply must tell her by Tuesday noon, signaling she aims to replace them fast and may try another ouster. Phillip Lemman, the deputy state court administrator, said a meeting is Thursday.
The unexpected action comes after a failed attempt to remove Office of Public Defense Services executive director Stephen Singer last week. Justices appoint commission members. Commission member Walters is nonvoting.
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Walters told the committee last week that Singer verbally abused her during one visit and that she doesn’t “believe his apologies.”
The two have sparred informally over public defense management and the indigent defense dilemma. As of last week, roughly 1,000 persons who qualify for public defense lawyers were without one. The singer didn’t respond to a Monday email.
Walters wrote to the commission, “As you know, the Public Defense Services Commission… ensures Oregon provides public defense services consistent with the Oregon Constitution, the U.S. Constitution, and Oregon and national standards of justice.” “Systemic change is needed to accomplish this purpose, and it’s my job to appoint a Commission that can lead it. Unfortunately, it’s time to reform the Commission.”
She claimed “reconstituting” the commission will “ensure it delivers the correct leadership, combining public defense knowledge, experience, and commitment with state government knowledge, experience, and understanding”
“I never expected to use this authority, but this matter is too vital to delay,” she wrote. “We must expedite our work and coordinate with the executive, legislative, and public defense communities to improve public defense and meet our responsibility to Oregonians.”
Last week, commission chair Per Ramfjord warned members that Singer has lost support from lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown. Singer denied Ramfjord’s claim that Brown supported his resignation.
Ramfjord received “intemperate” and unprofessional texts and emails from Singer. He tried to “coach” Singer’s interpersonal skills but failed. Singer accused Ramfjord of sabotage and lying.
Singer alienated judges in Marion County. A judge there ordered Singer’s employees to defend poor clients, causing Singer to slam the judge for “improper conduct.”
The commission must hire the public defense office’s executive director. The government compensates attorneys to represent impoverished defendants with $355.9 million. Nonprofit law firms like Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland and Hillsboro and independent lawyers provide these services. Before Singer’s appointment in December, the agency faced an exodus of defense lawyers, sexism charges, and poor pay concerns.
The commission consists of Oregon criminal justice experts. Steven Wax, the retired federal defender for Oregon, Thomas Christ, a Sussman Shank partner, defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig, Max Williams, former Oregon Department of Corrections director, attorney Mark Hardin, Paul Solomon of Sponsors, a prisoner reentry program, Christine Thomas of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Alton Harvey Jr. of Volunteers of America, and Ramfjord of Stoel Rives.
Wax, Hardin, Christ, and Harvey opposed Singer’s removal. Singer’s paid leave and reprimand requests were denied.
Harvey was baffled by Walters’ decision. I joined this commission assuming I’d be helping the organization succeed, but people have different goals. Personal feelings are more important than organizational achievement.
He told Walters he wanted to join the commission. Walters’ move “devastated” Wax.
Wax: “The panel has worked relentlessly on tough topics and changes.” “Disputes are unavoidable.”
He wouldn’t say if he’d reapply. Christ said Singer “offended” Walters months ago and “she’s never recovered.” Christ called the Singer dilemma a “distraction” from Oregon’s indigent defense difficulties. He won’t reapply.
These difficulties have been developing for years, long before Mr. Singer arrived, due to persistent underfunding, he noted. Hardin indicated he wouldn’t reapply after the chief justice’s decision. Ramfjord said he’ll reapply for his commission seat by email.
He agreed with the Chief Justice’s letter. We need the appropriate leadership to implement systemic change.
Sixth Amendment Center’s 2018 evaluation of Oregon’s public defense system found high caseloads and inadequate financing. It stated the state defies national standards by giving the judiciary sole power to designate commission members. The group proposed that the Oregon Legislature modify the law to “guarantee that commission member to be selected by various authorities”
“Currently, the legislative and executive departments of Oregon government are barred from bearing any share in or responsibility for the success of the public defense system,” the organization added.
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