PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The day after Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters fired all nine members of the state commission that oversees public defense, she said Tuesday that she was appointing four new commissioners and reappointing five commissioners from the previous group.
Walters had fired the commission members out of frustration that hundreds of defendants charged with crimes and who cannot afford an attorney have been unable to obtain public defenders to represent them.
“This change in leadership occurred quickly, and our work will commence as quickly,” Walters wrote in a letter Tuesday to the new commission. “These issues are too important to delay.”
Last week during a public hearing, Walters urged the commission to fire Steve Singer, the relatively new executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services.
Walters, a nonvoting member of the commission, has described Singer as untrustworthy, needlessly combative and slow to address the state’s public defense crisis. Others have defended Singer as reforming a long-broken system, while acknowledging he can be abrasive.
Despite Walters' calls for his removal last week, the commission deadlocked on the decision 4-4, with one member absent.
Minutes after Walters publicly named the new commission Tuesday, the Public Defense Services Commission announced it would hold an executive session Wednesday to meet with its attorneys and “to review and evaluate the job performance of the OPDS Executive Director.”
Walters has declined Oregon Public Broadcasting's interview requests.
“I think it was precisely because the commission refused to fire Steve Singer that the commission was fired,” now former Commissioner Mark Hardin, a retired attorney who voted against removing Singer, told OPB on Monday. “It’s hardly a leap.”
All four commissioners who voted to fire Singer were reappointed, along with one member, Alton Harvey Jr., who voted to keep Singer as head of the Office of Public Defense Services. All commissioners are volunteers.
Oregon’s public defender system is the only one in the county that relies entirely on contractors: Large nonprofit defense firms, smaller cooperating groups of private defense attorneys that contract for cases and independent attorneys who can take cases at will.
But some firms and private attorneys are periodically refusing to take new cases because of the workload. Poor pay rates and late payments from the state are also a disincentive. The American Bar Association found that Oregon has only 31% of the public defenders it needs.
Oregon’s unique public defender system has come under such strain that it is at the breaking point. Criminal defendants in Oregon who have gone without legal representation due to a shortage of public defenders filed a lawsuit in May that alleges the state is violating their constitutional right to legal counsel and a speedy trial.
Walters said “systemic change” is called for and that the commission must collaborate with Oregon’s executive and legislative branches and the public defense community “to create a better system for public defense providers.”