Oregon public defense system chief fired after months of uproar

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Steve Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, was terminated on August 18, 2022.

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Steve Singer survived the first attempt at his job. The state’s top public defender wasn’t so lucky the second time around.

In a widely expected move, the commission overseeing Oregon’s crumbling public defense system voted Thursday to fire Singer, in a 6-2 vote with one member absent. Singer led the Office of Public Defense Services for nearly eight months, earning fans among public defenders. But his confrontational style has annoyed commissioners, staff and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters.

The commission, which was reconstituted by Walters on Tuesday, did not take Singer’s firing lightly. When the vote was originally called on Thursday, only four commissioners voted to sack Singer, one short of the required majority. But after more discussion, two new commissioners, Jennifer Nash and Kristen Winemiller, agreed to fire him.

“Based on the information I’ve heard about the damage this will do to the agency if we don’t move forward,” Nash said, “I’m going to vote to fire Mr. Singer.”

“I agree,” added Winemiller. “It’s also my vote.”

It came after Singer mounted a vigorous defense, calling the push to remove him a dictatorial move by Walters and the judiciary as a whole, and saying it would put a black mark on Oregon’s efforts to reform the defense. public.

“This is the most significant frontal assault on public defense independence in the United States,” Singer said in a lengthy speech to the committee ahead of the vote. “It’s scary. It’s scary.”

Singer’s impeachment fixes an issue that had diverted attention from the state’s growing public defense crisis. But it creates new questions, such as who will take over the agency in their place, and whether that person will be more successful in navigating the three branches of government now intensely focused on the issue.

The commissioners said they would begin appointing an interim director as early as next week, but have so far left the agency in the hands of three staff members, including deputy director Brian DeForest, who has clashed with Singer.

Hundreds of criminal defendants in Oregon are currently without a lawyer, and the state is facing a class action lawsuit to bring it back into line with the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to an attorney for those accused of crimes.

Thursday’s action is the latest development in a dramatic series of events sparked at a similar committee meeting last week.

At that August 10 meeting, Walters and commission chairman Per Ramfjord forcefully urged commission members to vote to fire Singer. They and other commissioners said the director intimidated subordinates, unreasonably lashed out at Walters, offended lawmakers with thoughtless statements and failed to come up with a viable plan to get Oregon out of its public defense crisis.

The fate of Oregon’s public defense reform, Singer’s critics have suggested, would be in jeopardy if he were allowed to continue in his role.

“We have been a chaos of the making of Mr. Singer,” Walters told the commission during the meeting.

But while all commission members agreed on Aug. 10 that Singer’s first eight months in Oregon had been difficult, they couldn’t come to an agreement on what to do about it. topic. The group is deadlocked on votes to fire Singer or furlough him, with some committee members expressing belief in Singer’s vision and abilities even as they decry his conduct.

Oregon’s public defense system is nationally unique. Instead of being government employees, as prosecutors are, trial public defenders in Oregon are contractors. Most work for private companies or non-profit organizations that contract with the state. The Office of Public Defense Services, for which Singer has been responsible for eight months, issues these contracts and handles appeals. The office is overseen by the Public Defense Services Commission. And this commission is entirely appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Oregon.

With the commission unwilling to obey Walters’ orders, the Chief Justice pursued a new strategy.

Shortly after the meeting, court officials began contacting people across the state who might be willing to serve on the commission. On Monday, Walters took the unprecedented step of removing all nine members of the public defense commission, inviting anyone who wanted to stay to reapply. On Tuesday, the chief justice appointed a new commission, dropping five members and adding four new people.

Many of Singer’s staunchest defenders on the commission declined to apply or were not reappointed. During a hearing on Wednesday, the new board spoke openly about who Singer’s interim replacement might be if he is fired.

Now that Singer is gone, questions remain about how the state is moving forward. Oregon is in the midst of an unprecedented and troubling public defense crisis, which now includes more than 700 defendants – some jailed – without access to attorneys.

According to a study published in January, the state needs about 1,300 additional public defenders to meet its workload. And state officials, who have known for years that the worn-out system is likely unconstitutional, now face a class action lawsuit over Oregon’s failure to provide an indigent defense.

To complicate matters, public defenders for the state had warmed to Singer and praised him for the urgency and vision he brought to the struggling agency. Many of those supporters pointed to the work he did to reshape public defense in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“For the first time in my time in public defense…we have a director who seems to hear the voice of rural Oregon’s public defense community, understands their needs, and responds to those needs,” wrote Erik Swallow, a defender of Roseburg, in a letter to the commissioners last week.

At the same time, many senior government officials who will have a say in improving Oregon’s public defense system appeared to support Singer’s removal.

Senate Speaker Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, both backed Walters on Monday when she fired the Public Defense Committee.

“I’m not sure anyone saw that coming,” Courtney said at the time. “Things are a mess and they need to get better. We need to fix this thing.

Many in Oregon’s indigent defense community say the chief justice’s decision to revoke the commission en masse — presumably to secure the votes needed to fire Singer — sends a chilling message.

“We write today to express our concern about the political independence of the public defense system and the danger of keeping it in the judiciary,” said the Public Defenders of Oregon, an organization made up of several nonprofits. for-profit that pledge to provide about 30% of the state’s public defense, wrote to legislative leaders.

Concerns over the Chief Justice’s actions to ax and replace the commission extend far beyond Oregon.

“I can’t think of another case where an entire public defense council was taken down all at once,” said Geoff Burkhart, president of the National Association for Public Defense, who wrote a letter Wednesday to Walters expressing his concerns.

Burkhart said the main national standard for public defense is independence and it must be able to operate without political or judicial interference. The underlying concern, Burkhart notes, is whether those charged with crimes that need a public defender get a fair trial and one that is uninfluenced by a public defense system that is interwoven with the justice system.

“We’re here to make sure people are treated fairly,” Burkhart said. “If you don’t have independence for the defense function, it calls all of that into question. Are they able to get a fair jolt? »

A 2019 report commissioned by the Oregon Legislature found that the state’s public defense system was effectively unconstitutional. Among other concerns, the report questioned the advisability of a Public Defense Services Commission appointed solely by the Chief Justice.

“A non-independent system cannot solve its own lack of independence,” said Jon Mosher, deputy director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, author of the report. “The legislative branch and the executive branch must join the judiciary in monitoring the OPDS and how it is done.”

Despite these findings, Oregon lawmakers did not act on them. However, the Sixth Amendment Center was involved as part of a public defense legislative task force that was formed in April.

At Thursday’s meeting, at least one commissioner, Max Williams, expressed an openness to looking at the structure going forward, but also pointed to the realities of the current situation.

“We have currently received the hand that was dealt to us,” said Williams, who also voted to fire Singer. “It’s in the judiciary. And the chief justice is the appointing authority and under the statute people serve at the pleasure of the chief justice.

Yet many in the broader public defense community, regardless of their support or frustrations with Singer, are troubled by the events the Chief Justice sparked this week when she fired the commission and reappointed several new members who responded to his call to retire Singer.

“People are getting distracted by this side show and forgetting that we still have hundreds, at least if not thousands of people, who are without a lawyer and have been without a lawyer for months, including people in custody,” said Jason Williamson, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law.

Williamson is one of several attorneys who filed a class action lawsuit in May over Oregon’s failure to provide public defenders to those accused of crimes. He worries that the chief justice’s actions will make it more difficult to reform Oregon’s public defense system.

“It’s not news to anyone, including the chief justice, that there’s a crisis going on,” Williamson said. “Various state officials have been making this speech for a long time and if we had any faith that this was going to happen, we wouldn’t have sued.”

At a meeting Wednesday, the first ever of the new commission, Walters acknowledged the extraordinary events of the past week.

“It’s been difficult, it’s been emotional, I know for myself and I know for others as well,” Walters said. “I really never intended to exercise my statutory authority to abolish and reset the commission, but the issues we face in public defense are so urgent. I couldn’t allow the dysfunction and distractions to continue.

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