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In Oregon, public defense system rift leads to firing of defense chief

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Oregon, a very open rift between the state Supreme Court's chief justice and the head of the Public Defense Agency has threatened to undermine trust in the court system. The rift led to an overhaul of an oversight commission, the firing of that public defense chief and allegations of judicial overreach. Meanwhile, across the state, hundreds of people charged with crimes do not have access to a public defender. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has more.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: For roughly the last eight months, Steve Singer has served as the executive director for the state agency in Oregon responsible for public defense. About an hour before he was fired yesterday, Singer declared the commission that would decide his fate a complete sham.

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STEVE SINGER: This is what happens in third-world, tin-pot dictatorships.

WILSON: That nine-member commission oversees Oregon's public defense system and the executive director. That would be Singer. Members are appointed solely by the state's Supreme Court chief justice, and that structure contributed to this week's drama.

MARTHA LEE WALTERS: We've been in chaos of Mr. Singer's making.

WILSON: That's Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters. The rift between Singer and Walters started over how to address a very real shortage of public defenders. The Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney for people charged with crimes. But in Oregon, more than 700 people are without an attorney, including many in custody. Walters wanted immediate solutions to address the shortage, and while Singer provided a plan, he was also focused on larger concerns that affect public defenders, such as caseloads and attorney retention. Yesterday, before he was fired, Singer condemned the process that led up to that moment as a case of judicial overreach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGER: And this is the most significant frontal attack on the independence of public defense ever in the United States. And it is frightening. It is scary.

WILSON: So here's what happened. Last week, Chief Justice Walters asked the commissioners to fire Singer. They were deadlocked. So on Monday, Walters fired the entire commission, an unprecedented move. Then on Tuesday, Walters appointed a new commission that included five previous members, most of whom had voted to fire Singer. Walters explained her actions.

WALTERS: I never anticipated exercising that my statutory authority to remove and reset the commission, but the issues that we face in public defense are so urgent, I couldn't allow the dysfunction and the distractions to continue.

WILSON: But for now, it has continued. Walters is a longtime justice in Oregon and is well-respected. But replacing a commission so it would fire Singer has stunned corners of the legal community that believe public defense should operate without political or judicial interference. Problems with Oregon's public defense system date back years. A 2019 report commissioned by state lawmakers raised concerns about the chief justice's influence over public defense and recommended other branches of government share oversight responsibilities.

JASON WILLIAMSON: Various state officials have been giving this lip service for a long time.

WILSON: Jason Williamson is the executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at NYU School of Law.

WILLIAMSON: People are being distracted by this sideshow and forgetting about the fact that we still have hundreds at least, if not thousands, of people who are without counsel and have been without counsel for months on end, including people in custody.

WILSON: A state working group was formed this spring to explore solutions. But Williamson is skeptical. He's one of several attorneys suing the state for not providing lawyers to those charged with crimes. He says if he had any confidence the state was going to act, he wouldn't have filed a lawsuit. For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Conrad Wilson / OPB