Oregon’s Chief Justice Dismisses Entire Public Defense Commission

It comes five days after Chief Justice Martha L. Walters asked the commission, unsuccessfully, to fire the director of the agency it oversees.

Earlier today, Oregon’s top judge fired every member of the commission overseeing the state’s system of public defenders.

It comes five days after Chief Justice Martha L. Walters pleaded with members of the commission to fire Steven Singer, the director of the agency it oversees.

The commission did not. The vote was split.

“I never anticipated exercising this authority, but this issue is too important, and the need for change is too urgent, to delay,” Chief Justice Martha L. Walters wrote in a letter to the nine commissioners that was released to the media earlier today.

Oregon’s criminal defense system is in crisis. Many defendants across the state lack counsel because of a staffing shortage, and the state is being sued because of it.

Last year, the state brought in Singer, a highly regarded reformer who helped stand up the New Orleans defense system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to help fix the problem. He’s had some successes, including securing new money for the agency that funds public defenders, and is well-liked by many criminal defense lawyers.

But he’s tangled with members of the commission and the chief judge, who have accused him of acting unprofessionally. Singer, in turn, recounted his version of confrontation with Walters in text messages, submitted to the commission in a memo that WW reported last week. “It’s just been papered over by ‘the Oregon way’ where everyone is nice on the front & messing around behind your back,” he allegedly wrote.

Alton Harvey Jr., one of the commissioners who supported Singer at last week’s meeting, said he was “absolutely shocked” by Walters’ decision.

Walter’s letter gave applicants 24 hours to submit their notice of their interest in serving on the commission. Three of the current commissioners told Oregon Public Broadcasting they have reapplied or plan to. Harvey confirmed to WW that he already had.

Oregon law gives Walters wide authority to do as she pleases with the commission.

That’s the problem, says Jon Mosher, deputy director of the Sixth Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.

A 2019 report from the center criticized Oregon’s system of having only a single branch of government involved in the oversight of its public defense system.

“The system doesn’t have independence and doesn’t have accountability because the Legislature doesn’t have a seat on it,” he told WW.

Autumn Shreve, government relations manager for Singer’s office, said she could not comment on the story.

If the new commission is going to finally fire Singer, it will have the chance later this week. Its next meeting is Thursday.