Board fires Oregon public defense agency chief – Oregon Capital Chronicle

A state board fired the head of Oregon’s state public defense agency on Thursday, just eight months into his term and amid an ongoing shortage of public defenders that has left hundreds of Oregonians awaiting legal representation.

It was the second time in the past week that the Public Defense Services Commission has considered firing Stephen Singer, a longtime public defender hired in January to head the state’s Office of Public Defense Services. The commission has been deadlocked for the past week, and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, who appoints the commission members, responded by firing all nine of them on Tuesday.

She reappointed four members who supported Singer’s firing, as well as one who defended him and four new commission members. The commission oversees public defense services in Oregon and appoints the agency’s director.

Singer, speaking to the commission via video Thursday ahead of the 6-2 vote to fire him, denounced Walters’ actions as those of a dictator.

“That’s what happens in Third World phony dictatorships,” Singer said. “That’s when the legislature or parliament won’t do the chief executive’s bidding, so the dictator then dismisses the parliament and reconstitutes the parliament where the new parliament will be more flexible and will make the wishes of dictators.”

“It’s also akin to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre,” he continued. “Let’s just get rid of everyone who won’t do what I want.”

The crisis of the public defender violates a fundamental right. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that suspects are guaranteed legal representation in federal cases if they cannot afford an attorney themselves, and the Constitution of the Oregon contains a similar warranty.

For a time, it looked like the commission would side with Singer. The four returning members – chairman Per Ramfjord, vice-chairman Paul Solomon and commissioners Lisa Ludwig and Max Williams – all voted to fire him, but the new commissioners have expressed concerns.

New commissioners Jennifer Nash, a lawyer from Corvallis, and Kristen Winemiller, a lawyer from Portland, eventually joined the returning commissioners in voting to fire Singer. Nash initially advocated placing Singer on leave while an independent investigator reviews complaints filed against him by Walters, agency staff and others.

“My fear is that if there is no independent investigation, the new executive director will be under the same cloud as the commission if we decide to fire Mr. Singer today,” she said. “We may have issues with staff recognizing the executive director as a legitimate manager, and it just seems to me that in the long run that’s the prudent thing to do so that we can resolve these issues once and for all. “

Comments from Williams, a former Republican state representative, and new commissioner Peter Buckley, a former Democratic state representative, convinced Nash and Winemiller to fire Singer, they said. The agency is preparing to seek more legislative funding, and the two said Singer’s style could make it harder to receive that money.

“If we stayed with the status quo here, it would hurt the agency significantly in terms of the legislative process, because I’ve heard enough from former colleagues that there is great disappointment and frustration with the current state of things,” Buckley said. .

Buckley and fellow new commissioner Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy for the Portland Urban League, voted against his firing, calling instead for a more thorough investigation.

Parrish Taylor said the commission needed to know more about whether the complaints against Singer boiled down to personality clashes or the quality of her work. The commission needed to remain focused first and foremost on addressing the continuing shortage of public defenders, she said.

“Basically the people who are affected are the people without representation, and they don’t care about our feelings,” she said. “They care about the work done. »

Singer told the commission in an interview last year that he planned to use his first nine months to a year to study the state’s public defense system, build relationships and understand how it works before moving on. ‘make changes.

At the time, he said, no one told him the state had an unrepresented client crisis. Singer started in early January, and a report from the American Bar Association that Oregon had only a third of the public defense attorneys it needed was released in late January.

Singer said he was troubled by weekly meetings with Walters, a court administrator and chairman of the board, as the American Bar Association principles of public defense include maintaining the selection, funding and payment of defense attorneys independent of the justice system.

He also opposed Walters’ requests to recruit volunteer civilian attorneys, retired judges, and second- and third-year law students to act as public defenders. This approach hasn’t worked in other states, Singer said, and it’s “an extraordinarily reprehensible and unethical way to deal with the poor accused of crimes.”

“The practice of criminal law, like the practice of medicine and other professions, has become much more specialized than it was decades ago,” he said. “You wouldn’t want me or any other public defender dealing with your will or your trust and your assets. You don’t want someone who deals with wills, trusts, estates or mergers and acquisitions, who deals with a criminal case, even a criminal misdemeanor case.

The commission plans to turn to two agency employees — current deputy director Brian DeForest, who is not a lawyer, and Laurie Bender, the agency’s chief criminal trial attorney — to co-lead the department as it seeks an interim and prospective permanent executive director. .

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