Oregon’s Supreme Court Chief Justice said she never anticipated she would fire and reconstitute the entire commission that oversees the state’s public defense system, all in a matter of days.
During brief remarks Wednesday before a newly appointed commission, Chief Justice Martha Walters acknowledged the extraordinary week for the state’s public defense community.
“It’s been challenging, it’s been emotional, I know for me and I know for others as well,” Walters said. “I really never anticipated exercising 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.”
Walters’ remarks come the day before the newly constituted Public Defense Services Commission is expected to vote, once again, on whether to fire Steve Singer, the executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, the state agency charged with providing attorneys for those charged with crimes who cannot afford a lawyer.
Last week, Walters asked commissioners to fire Singer. The commission deadlocked, 4-4, with one member absent, failing to secure the votes to fire him.
The nine-member commission oversees Singer and the state agency. Every member is appointed by the chief justice — something national legal groups say infringes on the independence of the state’s public defense system. They argue the arrangement also helped lead to the state’s current public defense crisis.
As of Aug. 11, there were more than 700 people across the state charged with crimes who don’t have attorneys, according to the Oregon Judicial Department. As of Aug. 16, there were 60 people in custody without an attorney, a right guaranteed by the Constitution.
Citing the urgency of the situation for those without attorneys, Walters fired the entire commission on Monday. On Tuesday, she announced four new commissioners and reappointed five previous members. All but one of the reappointed members has previously voted to fire Singer.
Some in the state’s public defense community said that while Singer is abrasive, they see him as a reformer taking on a long broken system. Walters disagrees.
“There have been accusations and suggestions that personality conflicts were what drove my decision,” Walters said Wednesday. “That’s counterproductive and it needs to stop. Anyone who was on the previous commission and asked to be reappointed is on this reset commission.”
Minutes later, the commissioners went into executive session to “discuss confidential legal advice from the Commission’s legal counsel” and “review and evaluate the job performance of the OPDS Executive Director.”
During her comments, Walters also welcomed the four new commissioners, noting she was “optimistic” about the new leadership calling it “precisely the kind of experience, perspective and representation 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.”
Also Wednesday, Per Ramfjord, the former commission chair who was reappointed to his position this week, said he was “fully committed to advancing reforms” in an effort to hire more public defenders and retain those who remain. He said he would meet with anyone and wanted to hear about how best to improve the public defense system.
“I hope that we can use this commission reorganization to learn and reset because I believe that we are realigned and committed to improving the public defense system, both to providers and clients,” Ramfjord said.
After the executive session, commission members returned to the public meeting and discussed what they planned to do next, including finding a new leader for the state’s public defense agency.
“We have been actively engaged in identifying potential interim candidates,” Ramfjord said. “I would expect that we would move very quickly on providing information to the commission about any potential candidates … as early as the meeting tomorrow or early next week.”