SALEM, Ore. — The head of Oregon’s public defenders’ office was fired Thursday in a clash over how to solve a dire shortage of attorneys to represent people too poor to afford a lawyer.
Critics for years have said Oregon’s unique public defense system is in crisis, with far too few attorneys to represent defendants. A report by the American Bar Association released in January found that Oregon has only 31% of the public defenders it needs.
The executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, Stephen Singer, was fired by an oversight panel. The vote Thursday was six to two, with one member absent. Critics cited an abrasive, combative style Singer brought to his job.
The action by the Public Defense Services Commission capped an extraordinary week in which Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters took the unprecedented step of firing all the members of the commission. She then reinstated five of them while appointing four new members.
“This is what happens in Third World tin pot dictatorships,” Singer told the reconstituted panel Thursday before it took the vote. “This is when the ... parliament won’t do the bidding of the chief executive and so the dictator then dismisses the parliament and reconstitutes a new parliament that will be more pliable and do the dictator’s wishes.”
Singer was brought in to solve Oregon's public defense problem, and he said his ouster nd the loss of the commission’s independence would make low-income people charged with a crime, who disproportionately are people of color, suffer the consequences.
“In the end, I’m not the loser. You’re not the losers. The chief justice isn’t the loser. The court system isn't the loser. The real losers here are the clients,” Singer said.
Oregon’s public defender system is the only one in the nation 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.
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.
Singer said Walters had suggested he recruit volunteers, civil lawyers, retired lawyers, retired judges and third- and fourth-year law students to address the backlog of unrepresented defendants. Singer said he refused.
"It’s an extraordinarily reprehensible and unethical way to treat poor people charged with crimes,” he told the commission. “They are not people to be experimented on.”
"Even a misdemeanor criminal case can have significant consequences for the client and can result in deportation," he said. "It has implications for housing, for jobs, for education, access to loans."
One of the commissioners who voted against firing Singer was Jennifer Parrish Taylor, a Black woman who is with the Urban League of Portland. She had recommended that an investigation be conducted into Singer's conduct and effectiveness, and said firing him amounted to a lack of due process, since he wasn't able to bring witnesses before the panel and almost half of its members are new and unfamiliar with the situation.
She compared Singer's predicament to low-income defendants who aren't afforded due process because the court system can't find attorneys to represent them.
Singer, appearing before the commission via video link, appealed to the new commission to allow him to keep his job and said Walters — an ex-officio permanent, non-voting member of the commission — was threatening the independence of the commission by firing the commission and appointing a new one to do her bidding.
“The commission and its employees, including myself, is supposed to be independent from from the judiciary,” Singer said.
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 her personality conflicts with Singer had nothing to do with her actions this week.
“We need to advance the next phase of our work to create the systemic changes and immediate support for those serving and those in need of public defense services in Oregon,” she told the commission on Wednesday.
“I know that emotions are still running high for some,” Walters said. “And there have been accusations and suggestions that personality conflicts were what drove my decision. That’s counterproductive and needs to stop.”