In an unprecedented move, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters notified all nine members of the Public Defense Services Commission of her intent to remove them from their positions on Tuesday.
Last week, the commission voted 4-4, with one member gone, against removing Steve Singer, the executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services. Walters, who is a nonvoting member of the commission, spoke strongly in favor of removing Singer, calling him untrustworthy, needlessly combative and slow to address the state’s public defense crisis.
“Systemic change is necessary to fulfill that mission, and it is my responsibility to appoint a Commission that can effectively lead this change,” Walters wrote in a letter to commissioners on Monday. “Unfortunately, it is now clear that it is time to reconstitute the current Commission.”
Oregon’s public defense system is under severe strain. Hundreds of people accused of crimes – some in custody – are currently without constitutionally guaranteed attorneys to aid in their defense.
“I never anticipated exercising this authority, but this issue is too important, and the need for change is too urgent, to delay,” Walters wrote Monday. She declined to answer OPB’s questions on the matter.
It’s unclear how quickly Walters plans to appoint members to a reconstituted commission.
“We expect there to be a meeting of the new Commission on Thursday,” Todd Sprague, a spokesperson for the Oregon Judicial Department wrote in an email.
Members of the Public Defense Services Commission are appointed by the Chief Justice. Walters invited commission members to reapply by Tuesday if still interested in serving. Of the members who spoke to OPB on Monday, three said they already had or planned to reapply.
Less than a year ago, Singer was brought on as executive director of the public defense agency with a mandate to make big changes in an attempt to fix the well-documented problems in the system. Critics say Singer has not moved fast enough and is incredibly hard to work with.
“It’s not Mr. Singer’s vision or ideas that I’m critical of,” Per Ramfjord, the commission’s chair and a lead advocate for firing Singer, said last week. “It is rather his conduct toward other people, which I think undermines the effectiveness of the agency and the ability to move forward.”
But the commission was evenly split on the question of firing Singer, who has many supporters among public defenders. Harney County public defender John Lamborn wrote to the commission ahead of last week’s hearing to say: “I don’t have to like Mr. Singer to say I think he knows what he’s doing.”
Ramfjord, the commission chair who led the charge for Singer’s ouster alongside Walters, cheered Monday’s announcement.
“Systemic change is necessary, and we need to ensure that we have the right leadership in place to make it happen,” Ramfjord said in an email. “I am deeply committed to that mission and will reapply to the Commission in the hopes of moving things forward more effectively for the benefit of everyone in the State.”
Attorney Lisa Ludwig, another commissioner who voted to fire Singer, declined to comment on Walters’ letter, but said she would ask to remain on the commission.
Commissioner Mark Hardin, a retired attorney who voted against removing Singer, said he doesn’t have any current plans to reapply.
“I think it was precisely because the commission refused to fire Steve Singer that the commission was fired,” Hardin said. “It’s hardly a leap.”
Steve Wax, Oregon’s former Federal Public Defender and now Legal Director of the Oregon Innocence Project, said commissioners have been working on challenging reforms.
“In that work, disagreement is inevitable,” Wax said. “I was sorely disappointed to receive the chief justice’s letter.”
Wax, who voted against firing Singer last week, declined to say whether he would ask to remain on the commission.
Another commissioner who’d backed Singer, Alton Harvey Jr., said Monday he’d already applied to keep his seat.
“[Walters] and I have had our own conversations about the importance of addressing the unrepresented or underrepresented community of defendants in the whole state,” Harvey said, noting that the state’s public defense crisis predates Singer’s short tenure.
Max Williams, who joined the commission in July and voted to fire Singer last week, said he’s not sure whether he will reapply.
“I realize the commissioners serve at the pleasure of the chief justice,” Williams said. “It’s her prerogative to appoint commissioners.”
Tom Christ, a partner at a Portland law firm, began serving on the commission prior to Walters’ tenure as chief justice. He and his fellow commissioners have been making “good progress on long overdue reforms,” he said.
“Removing the lot of us, apparently because we haven’t agreed to fire [Singer], in hope of finding new commissioners who will, is an unfortunate distraction from that good work.”
Neither Paul Solomon nor Chris Thomas responded to requests for comment. During last week’s vote, Solomon voted to fire Singer and threatened to quit if the commission did not place Singer on leave. Thomas was absent from the meeting.
‘Surprised, but not shocked’
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Walters called him on Monday morning to describe her plan. Courtney, one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state, called the decision a “blockbuster.”
“I’m not sure anyone saw this coming,” Courtney said, adding that he supported Walters. “Things are a mess and they’ve got to get better. We’ve got to correct this thing.”
Courtney’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said in a statement he respected the decision.
State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is part of a legislative task force examining public defense. He said last week that Singer’s position atop the public defense agency had grown untenable and distracting to larger reforms. He described being “surprised but not shocked” when he learned of the decision to remove commission members.
“When an administrator of an agency becomes a story, it sucks up all the oxygen in the room,” said Evans. “This allows the chief to appoint folks who are focused on the real problem, which is that Oregonians aren’t currently being given an adequate defense.”
Gov. Kate Brown’s office did not respond to repeated inquiries about the controversy surrounding Singer.
How the Public Defense Services Commission operates
As the chief justice, Walters oversees the judiciary, the state’s third branch of government. She plays a key, but limited role in how the Public Defense Services Commission operates, by appointing and removing members. In fact, she cited the statute in her letter removing the entire commission.
The law allows for “a member” to be “removed from the commission by order of the Chief Justice,” but is silent on whether the authority extends to the entire commission. The statute also notes that commissioners “are not subject to the exercise of administrative authority and supervision by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court” as head of the judiciary.
Oregon lawmakers commissioned a report that in 2019 found the state’s public defense system was effectively unconstitutional. As part of its recommendations, the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center – now part of a legislative working group reviewing public defense in Oregon – pointed to the make-up of the Public Defense Services Commission.
The report notes that the state does not follow national standards because all of the commissioners were appointed by the judiciary branch.
“Importantly, the commission should be made up of members selected by diverse appointing authorities, so that no single branch of government has the ability to usurp power over the chief defender or exert outsized influence over the delivery of public defense services,” the Sixth Amendment Center report states. “Oregon’s Public Defense Services Commission ...institutionalizes judicial interference in the provision of defense services.”