A group of public defenders in Multnomah County told OPB they're going to walk off the job starting Monday, though the walkout isn't expected to affect day-to-day courthouse operations.
Multnomah Defenders Inc., a group of about 15 criminal defense attorneys and staff, said their walkout is expected to last several days this week. They plan to take their case to lawmakers in Salem.
Public defenders said they're protesting high case loads and in support of House Bill 3145, which appears stalled in the Legislature's budget committee. That bill would pave the way for a public defense system that requires more training for new attorneys, caseload caps and eventually the state hiring some 900 attorneys and support staff.
"Attorneys from Multnomah County’s second largest public defense firm will be absent from court to draw attention to state legislation that would reform the public defense system statewide, improving legal representation for low-income Oregonians," attorneys from Multnomah Defenders Inc. said in a statement to OPB.
The walkout comes as the state is struggling with how to fix its overburdened public defense system.
In January, the state received the results of a report completed by the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center and paid for by the Legislature. The nonprofit found that Oregon's public defense system essentially violates protections outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
Public defenders represent indigent clients who are otherwise unable to afford their own attorney to help with their criminal cases.
MDI said during the walkout its managers, rather than attorneys, will take on dockets that would otherwise fall to public defenders.
"Anything that's not absolutely necessary isn't going to happen," said Charlie Peirson, an attorney with MDI. Peirson said he suspects the nonprofit will pick up its usual number of appointed cases on Monday.
Still, he said the walkout is designed to send a message to lawmakers.
"The state of public defense is in crisis, we are really hurting; our caseloads have grown since I've been doing this and the senior lawyers all say the same thing," he said. "We have gone from not knowing how much longer we can do this, to knowing we can't do it much longer."
Last week, leaders of the largest public defense office in Lane County said they would no longer take felony sex cases, which are among the most serious and complex for criminal defense attorneys, through at least July.
In recent months, the office has received so many Measure 11 cases, which come with voter-approved mandatory minimum sentences, the nonprofit’s leaders say they can’t handle more. While they've cut off new cases in the past, they've never done it so early in the year.
“We didn’t think that any of the four attorneys who were qualified to handle those can take any more cases right now without their work suffering," said Brook Reinhard, executive director of the Public Defender Services of Lane County.
The Office of Public Defense Services has asked lawmakers for $50 million in new money to start the process of rolling out a new public defense system, designed to address the constitutional concerns raised in the Sixth Amendment Center's report.
Lawmakers have indicated they may not be willing to fund that.
OPDS estimates it will cost an additional $160 million over several budget cycles to rollout its proposed public defense system. That would be on top of the roughly $340 million in current budget costs.
Peirson said HB 3145 is a structural fix. And while he acknowledges it will cost more money, he said it's money that will move the state's criminal justice system forward.
"What that money buys isn't more of the same," he said. "What that money buys is a system that actually fulfills the obligations of the Sixth Amendment."
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued 15 states in the past over issues surrounding public defense. It has said it's closely watching what lawmakers in Oregon do to address the issues and haven't ruled out a lawsuit.
The walkout comes as MDI is taking on more misdemeanor cases, too.
Last month, Metropolitan Public Defender said for about five weeks, it would no longer take on new misdemeanor cases. That's because two of the seven attorneys in the misdemeanor trial unit left.
Many of those additional cases are now flowing to attorneys at MDI, who say they're overworked to the point they don't feel they can adequately serve their clients.
“Ultimately, most of the attorneys that leave feel they cannot completely represent their clients to the best of their ability because the system is under-resourced and overwhelmed,” Carl Macpherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, told OPB last week.
HB 3145 passed 11-1 out of the House Judiciary Committee. It's currently in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.