Oregon Justice Fires Commission Due to Lack of Public Defenders

SALEM, Ore. — On Monday, Oregon’s chief justice fired all members of the Public Defender Commission, frustrated that hundreds of criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer have been unable to find public defenders to represent them.

The unprecedented action comes as Oregon’s unique public defender system is under such strain that it is on the brink. Criminal defendants in Oregon who have been left without legal representation due to a shortage of public defenders filed a lawsuit in May alleging the state violated their constitutional right to counsel and a speedy trial.

In a letter to commission members, Chief Justice Martha Walters said their duty is to “ensure that Oregon provides public defense services consistent with the Oregon Constitution, the United States and Oregon Constitutions, and national standards of justice.”


“Unfortunately, it is now clear that it is time to reform the current commission,” she said.

Oregon’s public defender system is the only one in the nation that relies entirely on contractors: large nonprofit defense firms, smaller collaborative groups of private defenders who contract for cases and independent attorneys who can take on cases at will .

But some firms and private lawyers periodically refuse to accept new cases due to workload. Low pay levels and delayed government payments are also deterrents. The American Bar Association found that Oregon has only 31 percent of the public defenders it needs.

Walters said “systemic change” is needed and that the commission must work with Oregon’s executive and legislative branches and the public defense community “to create a better system for public defense providers.”

The Defense Public Service Commission currently has nine members, in addition to Walters, who, as Chief Justice, serves as an ex officio permanent member. Walters made the layoffs effective Tuesday and said that if any members want to serve on a panel, they must apply by noon Tuesday.


One of the members is Stephen Wax, who has extensive experience in public advocacy. He was a US Public Defender for the District of Oregon for 31 years and is currently the Legal Director of the Oregon Innocence Project, which focuses on wrongful convictions.

In a brief telephone interview, Wax said he was unhappy with the chief justice’s actions.

“The commission works tirelessly on tough issues and reforms,” ​​Wax said. “Disagreements are inevitable. I was very disappointed to receive the Chief Justice’s letter.’

He declined to comment further, including whether he would apply to a reconstituted commission, the independent body that runs the Defense Public Service Office and appoints its executive director. Its main mission is to create “a public defense system that ensures the provision of public defense services in the most cost-effective manner”.

The chief justice appoints his members and may remove them, according to Oregon law.


“I never expected to exercise this power, but this issue is too important and the need for change is too urgent to delay,” Walters said.

Todd Sprague, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, said that to his knowledge, the entire commission had never been released before.

The backlog in Oregon has resulted in dozens of cases being dismissed and, as of last May, has left about 500 defendants across the state without legal representation.

Jesse Merritue, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said that not having a lawyer immediately after an arrest causes problems that are nearly impossible to overcome later, such as obtaining surveillance video before it is deleted, which can support the case of the accused.

Oregon’s system was underfunded and understaffed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the backlog has grown amid delays in court activity due to safety protocols.

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Oregon Justice Fires Commission Due to Lack of Public Defenders

Source link Oregon Justice Fires Commission Due to Lack of Public Defenders

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