The former head of Oregon’s public defense system, who was fired in August after just eight months on the job, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the state claiming he was a whistleblower who faced retaliation and that his dismissal violated state law.
In a complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Stephen Singer, the former executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, states he reported to his superiors “the unconstitutional, illegal, and unethical state of public defense in Oregon” as well efforts by the Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters to “manage public-defense services in violation” of state law.
In his lawsuit, Singer is seeking $2.4 million in damages. The complaint names both the state of Oregon as well as the Public Defense Services Commission, which voted to fire Singer in August, as defendants.
For much of the past year, the shortage of attorneys has left the public defense system in crisis. As of Tuesday, the state had failed to provide attorneys for more than 800 people charged with crimes, a requirement under the constitution, according to data from the Oregon Judicial Department.
Oregon’s public defense system is overseen by the Public Defense Services Commission, whose members are appointed solely by the chief justice. The commission oversees the Office of Public Defense Services and its director. Under state law, “the commission and employees of the commission are not subject to the exercise of administrative authority and supervision by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as the administrative head of the Judicial Department.”
In his 35-page complaint, Singer contends Walters exceeded her authority. Like prosecutors and judges, public defenders are supposed to be independent to ensure criminal defendants are treated fairly.
“During his eight-month tenure as Executive Director, Singer pushed back against the Chief Justice’s attempts to increase public-defender workloads beyond Constitutional bounds, to appoint obviously unqualified attorneys to represent indigent defendants, and to meddle in the day-to-day affairs of public defense in Oregon,” the lawsuit states.
The Oregon Judicial Department, which Walters oversees, declined to discuss the lawsuit.
“Given that it’s a pending case, we don’t have a comment,” Todd Sprague, the spokesperson for the department, wrote in an email.
A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice, which typically defends the state in court, said the agency was reviewing the complaint.
Singer’s dismissal was the culmination of a dramatic two weeks in August.
On Aug. 10, Walters called on commissioners to fire Singer. But when they did not, Walters dismissed the entire commission, setting off an extraordinary series of events. Days later, she announced a new commission composed largely of people who voted to fire Singer, or were new. On Aug. 18, the new commission met, and voted 6-2, to remove Singer.
The lawsuit chronicles, in detail, Singer’s perspective during his brief tenure running the Office of Public Defense Services.
Singer began in January and contends in the lawsuit that after just weeks on the job he was facing a shortage of attorneys that the Public Defense Services Commission “knew about but had not alerted him to.”
At the meeting where Singer was fired, Per Ramfjord, the chair of the commission, said he had discussed the issue with Singer.
“I also had discussions with him about the unrepresented defendant issue very early on,” Ramfjord said.
The lawsuit also describes a meeting on Feb. 4, after Walters emailed the entire state bar seeking attorneys willing to take on indigent clients.
“The Chief Justice delivered a roughly 35-minutes tirade against Singer,” the lawsuit alleges. “Throughout the monologue, the Chief Justice demanded that Singer fix the problem of unrepresented defendants immediately.”
On April 22, Singer addressed a meeting of judges and court administrators in Eugene. The chief justice and state court administrator Nancy Cozine asked Singer to address the issue of unrepresented clients and “speak generally” about changes at the Office of Public Defense Services, the lawsuit states.
“During Singer’s presentation, the Chief Justice repeatedly stood up and interrupted him, asked him to redirect his presentation entirely to the unrepresented-defendant problem, questioned and interrupted Singer when he attempted to discuss the need for overall systemic reform and was dismissive of Singer’s discussion of the complexity of the issues,” the lawsuit states. “At one point, the Chief Justice got up from her seat at a table in the audience and physically ripped the microphone from Signer’s hand to change an answer that he was giving to a judge’s question.”
The lawsuit also notes efforts by Walters and Cozine to “directly manage the public defense system.” Singer told Ramfjord that Walter and Cozine requested current caseloads for attorneys at two nonprofit public defense firms.
“I understand where this is going. It is a bridge too far for me,” Singer wrote to Ramfjord, the lawsuit states. “If Nancy [Cozine] and the C.J. want to run the public defense system they are welcome to apply for my job... But they can’t run public defense from their current positions. It’s a conflict of interest and it crosses the line.”
During a meeting on April 28 between Cozine, Singer, Ramfjord and the chief justice, Walters brought up the caseloads for attorneys with Singer.
“Singer told the Chief Justice that she and Cozine needed to say in their lane,” the lawsuit states. “Throughout the conversation, Singer’s tone was forceful and his comments direct.”
After the meeting, Ramfjord told Singer in a text message, which OPB obtained via a public records request:
“Your outburst at the Chief Justice and Nancy was, to my mind, completely unjustified,” Ramfjord wrote. “I have never seen either the Chief or Nancy show you anything remotely close to the level of disrespect you showed them ... you asked me to be blunt with you and from my perspective, your reaction was out-of-line, plain and simple. I also don’t know how you can expect to work with them in the future or get their support without addressing what seems to me to be a giant rift.”
Several weeks later, Ramfjord helped set up a meeting between Singer and Walters, according to messages OPB obtained via a records request.
“I talked to the chief,” Ramfjord wrote on May 11 to Singer. “She understands that you want to say what you have to say in your own words and is willing to meet with you alone. Just to be clear, however, she is expecting some form of apology. I hope it all goes well.”
Singer replied that he would apologize, “right out of the gate.” According to the lawsuit, Singer and Walters met in her judicial chambers in Salem for more than three hours on May 12. While he apologized, Singer also said he “needed independence to function properly,” the lawsuit states.
When Singer said that they both needed to stay in their own lanes for the system to work, Walters appeared angry, the suit notes.
“‘I am the Chief Justice of Oregon,’” she said, according to the lawsuit. “‘I don’t have any lanes.’”
By the time he was fired, Singer had developed a reputation with state lawmakers and the judiciary as an outspoken advocate whose abrasive style clashed with Walters and others.
“The Chief Justice’s reasons for firing Singer highlight why independent public defense is so important in the first place,” the lawsuit states.
Charlie Gerstein, Singer’s attorney, said it’s not just why the commission fired Singer, but also how.
“By dissolving an independent commission that was created to protect the independence of the executive director of the public defense system in Oregon,” Gerstein said. “This is the kind of thing you’d expect of Donald Trump or Richard Nixon, not the chief justice of the state.”