HOST: MARY LOUISE KELLY, the top judge of the Oregon Supreme Court and the head of the Public Defense Agency have a highly public disagreement that has the potential to damage public confidence in the legal system. The disagreement sparked accusations of judicial overreach, the revamping of an oversight body, and the termination of the public defense head. A public defender is not available to hundreds of persons who have been accused of crimes throughout the state. Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting has more.
CONRAD WILSON: Steve Singer has been the executive director of the state organization in Oregon in charge of public defense for roughly the previous eight months. The singer declared the commission that would decide his fate yesterday around an hour before he was put go.
STEVE SINGER: This is what tin-pot dictatorships in the third world do.
WILSON: The executive director and the public defense system in Oregon are under the control of that nine-member committee. Singer would be that. The framework of this week’s drama was influenced by the fact that members are only nominated by the top justice of the state’s Supreme Court.
We have been in anarchy that Mr. Singer created, says MARTHA LEE WALTERS.
WILSON: Chief Justice Martha Walters of the Oregon Supreme Court. Over how to handle a very real lack of public defenders, Singer and Walters’ disagreement began. The right to counsel is guaranteed by the Constitution for those facing criminal charges. However, more than 700 people, many of whom are detained, are without legal representation in Oregon. Although Singer offered a strategy, he was also concerned with other pressing issues that affect public defenders, including caseloads and attorney retention. Walters demanded quick measures to solve the problem. Singer criticized the proceedings leading up to that point as an instance of judicial overreach yesterday before he was fired.
SINGER: This is the biggest frontal assault on public defense’s independence ever in the United States. And it is terrifying. It is terrible.
WILSON: So, here is what transpired. Chief Justice Walters requested Singer’s dismissal from the commissioners last week. They were at a standstill. So, in an unusual action, Walters dismissed the whole commission on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Walters named a new panel with five former members, the majority of whom had voted to remove Singer. Walters gave an account of what she did.
WALTERS: The problems we have in public defense are so critical that I couldn’t allow the dysfunction and the distractions to continue. I never anticipated using my legislative authority to remove and reset the commission.
However, for the time being, it has continued. Walters has served as a judge for many years and is well-liked. The legal community’s belief that public defense should operate free from political or judicial intervention has been shocked by the replacement of a committee that would have fired Singer. Oregon’s public defense system has long-standing issues. Concerns regarding the chief justice’s influence over public defense were raised in a 2019 report that state lawmakers had commissioned, and it was suggested that other branches of government share supervisory duties.
Many state leaders have long been paying lip service to this issue, according to Jason Williamson.
WILSON: Jason Williamson is the center’s executive director and a professor of law at NYU School of Law.
WILLIAMSON: People are being diverted by this spectacle and overlooking the fact that there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of people, including some who are in custody, who lack legal representation and have done so for months on end.
WILSON: This spring, a state working group was established to look into options. Williamson, however, is dubious. He is one of many attorneys who are suing the state for failing to represent clients who have been accused of crimes. He claims he wouldn’t have filed a case if he had any faith the state would take action. I’m Conrad Wilson in Portland, reporting for NPR News.
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