Public defenders in Multnomah County walked out June 10 to protest inaction by legislators considering reforms that would increase pay and decrease workloads for attorneys who represent indigent clients in criminal proceedings.
The walkout, first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, will not impact court dockets because managers at Multnomah Defenders Inc. will handle cases that the 15 protesting attorneys from would normally work on.
"Without skilled, experienced public defenders, not only can our justice system not be fair, but it can't function at all," Lisa Ludwig, a member of the Multnomah Defenders Board of Directors, said in a statement. "For too long, public defenders have been expected to do the hardest work with the least amount of support and compensation."
The MDI lawyers will advocate for legislators to pass House Bill 3145, which would address a number of problems with the way Oregon's public defenders are funded.
Last year, a nonprofit, called The Sixth Amendment Center, published a report that said public defense was so poorly funded in Oregon that the state had violated the U.S. Constitution. HB 3145 would specifically address some of the concerns in the report, including overwhelming caseloads and a funding structure that incentivizes public defenders to rush cases.
"Our clients aren't being treated with dignity or respect by a system that stretches lawyers this thin," public defender Charlie Peirson said in a statement.
"I wouldn't settle for one percent of my mechanic's attention, and I'm running out of ways to tell my clients they have to settle for even less than that from me."
The walkout follows an announcement by Metropolitan Public Defenders, another group of public defenders in Multnomah County, that its lawyers would stop accepting misdemeanor cases because of excessive caseloads.