State Chief Justice Dismisses the Entire Public Defense Commission, and Her Justification Is…

State Chief Justice Dismisses the Entire Public Defense Commission, and Her Justification Is… Not Very Good – Public defenders have a challenging task in every jurisdiction. Although public defenders are a crucial component of a constitutional justice system, legislatures consistently underfund and disregard them, leaving destitute clients to suffer.

When Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters fired all nine members of the state’s Public Defense Services Commission, citing her frustration “that hundreds of defendants charged with crimes and unable to afford an attorney were unable to obtain public defenders to represent them,” it nearly broke the bullshitometer I keep on my desk.

The Chief appointed four new members and reappointed five existing members. As its first item of business, the new Commission removed Steven Singer as executive director of Public Defense Services. However, this is the point… Last week, the Chief attempted to convince the Commission to dismiss Singer but was unsuccessful. In response, the Chief nuked the whole Commission and installed one that would fire Singer.

The Oregon criminal justice system is notoriously flawed — it was the last state to allow non-unanimous criminal convictions until the Supreme Court delivered the Ramos judgment — and the Chief Justice does have the authority to unilaterally create a puppet Commission for public defense.

Singer has his own problems — the Chief Justice alleges he verbally attacked her, and other Oregon lawmakers are said to have begged him to go — so there may be valid grounds to remove him. However, none of these explanations seem to be “because he is the reason the public defender system is overburdened.”

In order to determine the reason of the public defender problem in the state, it may be necessary to remove the mirrors and replace them with specially selected reflecting devices. A thread from the founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps,

State Chief Justice Dismisses the Entire Public Defense Commission
State Chief Justice Dismisses the Entire Public Defense Commission


If the state’s answer to every little transgression is to detain individuals until an underfunded public defense system catches up, a change in leadership will not produce better outcomes.

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It’s feasible that the system may push public defenders to give less effective help and turn up unprepared only to rubberstamp that the state hired a lawyer, but it is neither a viable public defense system nor especially compatible with state and federal constitutions. One would expect that the program director, whether old or new, would vehemently refuse to cooperate with such a scheme.

Again, Singer may have deserved to be terminated for other reasons, but pouring crocodile tears for what the courts have done to burden the system is brutally insincere. Judge Judy would reply, “Don’t urinate on my leg and then tell me it’s raining.”

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