Former head of Oregon public defense settles with state for $380,000

By Conrad Wilson (OPB) and Lillian Mongeau Hughes (OPB)
July 18, 2023 10:51 p.m.

The state has agreed to settle a lawsuit with the former head of Oregon’s public defense system for $380,000.

In his civil complaint, Stephen Singer stated he was a whistleblower who faced retaliation and that his dismissal violated Oregon law. Singer was fired last year after a tumultuous eight-month tenure running the state’s Office of Public Defense Services.

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Even the way he got fired was tumultuous: On Aug. 10, then Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters called on commissioners to fire Singer. When they did not, Walters dismissed the entire commission. Days later, she announced a new commission composed largely of people who had previously voted to fire Singer, or were new. On Aug. 18, the new commission met, and voted 6-2, to remove Singer.

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“This settlement is well within the interests of the state to move beyond a difficult period and for the Public Defense Services Commission to be able to focus its full attention on the critical and time-sensitive issue of improving the state’s public defense services system,” said Michael Kron, Special Counsel to Oregon’s Attorney General.

Many in the legal community felt Signer’s reportedly abrasive style created as many problems as he tried to solve. But among public defenders working on the front lines, he had significant support for his efforts to draw attention to a broken system.

For nearly two years, Oregon’s public defense system has been in crisis, leaving thousands of people charged with crimes without attorneys. Of those, hundreds are in jail. Without attorneys to represent defendants, cases cannot move forward.

“The Office of Public Defense Services and the chief justice seemed to blame Mr. Singer for not fixing this very significant problem quickly enough,” said Singer’s lawyer Ashlee Albies. “We have seen it was not a problem with a quick fix. So it was entirely inappropriate to lay the blame for the crisis at his feet.”

In addition to violating the constitutional rights of the accused, the shortage of public defenders leaves prosecutors and judges unable to do their jobs. And it leaves victims without any resolution.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Ashlee Albies’ last name.

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