WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore — Last month, Chloé Clay, a public defender working in Washington County, filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging racial discrimination at the Law Enforcement Center in Hillsboro, only a month after she started her career as an attorney. OPB first reported on the lawsuit last month.
Clay told KGW she's wanted to be a lawyer since she was ten years old, and has wanted to be a public defender in particular since high school. She said she knows how important her role can be, especially as a Black attorney in predominantly white Washington County.
"I can think of every single one of my clients that were a Black male, also a Black woman, throughout this year, and my first interactions with them," she said, "When someone's in custody, they already just feel down and out of control, and you're probably meeting them at one of the worst moments in their life. But you walk into a visiting cell, and have someone's face light up and you haven't even said a word to them. Just because of your presence... It makes me almost want to cry because, it's like the power of representation, right?"
Interactions like these make the work worth it, Clay said. But being the only Black woman or Black attorney in the courtroom, — or in the county — is often difficult. Moments of discrimination and racism weigh heavily on her, though she said she tries and put them out of her mind while at work in order to focus on the client.
While it wasn't her first encounter with racism as an attorney, she said one incident last November stuck out. It was at the Law Enforcement Center in Hillsboro, where the Washington County Sheriff's Office and jail are located, a few blocks from the county courthouse.
Clay said she had to get some paperwork from the jail before court on Nov. 14. She hurried over to pick it up, but saw that the jail lobby was locked. She didn't realize at the time that deputies would close it for breaks and shift changes. She approached the first deputy she saw.
"I then encountered Deputy Lyle the first time," she said, "I explained to him, 'hey, I have a plea petition in the jail. I'm an attorney. I really need to get it. I have court at 9 a.m. I'm in a hurry.'"
The deputy, named in the lawsuit as Deputy David Lyle, claimed to be too busy to help, Clay said, so she sought out other employees working there. Eventually she learned that the only staff with access to the jail were the Washington County deputies. Since she knew some deputies were inside the public courtroom, she walked through the double doors — but, she said, she was stopped short.
"I got probably right to the metal detector, and Deputy Lyle then says something to the effect of, 'where are you going?' I said, 'I'm going in the courtroom.' He was like, 'come back over here.'"
According to the recently filed lawsuit, the deputy did not let her inside. Instead, he demanded to see her ID. Clay said she didn't have it on her, but offered to give him her bar number.
Clay said she watched the same deputy let other white attorneys into the courtroom that morning, without questioning them. Clay said the deputy began to walk her out of the building, but they crossed paths with the court-certified interpreter who stopped to say hello.
"Then Deputy Lyle goes, 'oh, so you know her?' And she turns and goes, 'of course I do. This is Chloé. She's an attorney.'"
Clay said she turned away and walked into the courtroom. In no time, she got the documents she needed from the jail, and headed over to court. Though she kept her attention on her client, she said the interaction upset her deeply — and she confided in friends and mentors. She called one of her closest mentors from back home.
"I was like, 'do I go through a lawsuit, or do I not?'" Clay said. "And she said, clearly, 'if you leave, it's going to keep happening. You have the ability for it not to'... I expected her to tell me to not do it, and so when she did not tell me, that's when I knew."
In August, Clay filed the lawsuit against Washington County, alleging unlawful discrimination.
The Washington County Sheriff's Office told KGW that Lyle is still employed and not on any leave. A spokesperson confirmed an investigation was conducted regarding the allegations, but the sheriff's office could not share more details due to potential litigation.
A spokesperson for the county wrote in a statement to KGW, "The description of events provided [in the tort claim notice] represents only the complainant’s interpretation of events that may or may not have occurred. The facts will be determined as part of the legal process."
"This lawsuit is so much bigger than me, right?" said Clay, "If I can give anything to anyone — it's just like, you know, the feel that they belong somewhere. That's really all I hope for."