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State public defense panel members to be dismissed

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Oregon Capital Bureau

Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters says she will remove all the members of the Public Defense Services Commission, the state panel that oversees legal representation for indigent criminal defendants.

Walters disagreed with the outcome of commission proceedings last week that left Stephen Singer as executive director of the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, which manages the web of public defender offices, nonprofit law firms, consortiums of individual lawyers and private law firms, and sometimes lawyers themselves.

Singer came from Louisiana to accept the job late last year, and he has been accused of being abrasive with others.

Indigent criminal defendants in some counties — including Multnomah and Washington counties — have been going without representation in court, in violation of a 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that they are entitled to counsel in state and federal courts under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

Walters sent a letter Monday to inform all nine commission members she would remove them as of noon Tuesday — though she also said she anticipates that some may be reappointed.

Her letter said in part:

“Systemic change is necessary to fulfill that mission, and it is my responsibility to appoint a commission that can effectively lead this change. Unfortunately, it is now clear that it is time to reconstitute the current commission.

“My purpose in reconstituting the commission is to ensure that it provides the right leadership, combining knowledge, experience, and commitment to public defense with knowledge, experience, and understanding of state governmental operations, to effectuate the changes we need to move forward.

“I never anticipated exercising this authority, but this issue is too important, and the need for change is too urgent, to delay. We must accelerate our work and collaborate with the executive and legislative branches and the public defense community to create a better system for public defense providers and fulfill our responsibilities to the people of Oregon.”

Under the 2003 law that created the commission, at least two members cannot be lawyers. One member must be a former prosecutor, and one member must be a lawyer with experience in criminal defense. No member can be actively involved in criminal defense.

Among the current commission members are Thomas Christ, a Portland lawyer who specializes in appellate practice; Steve Wax, former federal public defender in Oregon (1983-2014) and legal director for the Oregon Innocence Project, and Max Williams, a lawyer, former state representative, former director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and outgoing president of the Oregon Community Foundation.

Although the commission falls within the judicial branch — led by Walters as chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court — she does not control its budget, unlike state spending on trial and appellate courts.

The cost of indigent defense has been an issue ever since 1983, when trial and appellate courts were unified in a single system. It was an issue even before then, when several counties supported a state takeover of the courts to relieve them of the rising costs.

This year’s Legislature approved what amounts to a $13 million patch for indigent defense. The money was contained in a larger budget bill and will pay for up to 36 new lawyers, plus investigators and support staff. But the Legislature’s presiding officers and Gov. Kate Brown, all lawyers, said it was a temporary fix.

The Legislature also had withheld about $100 million of the budget for the Public Defense Services Commission. But the Emergency Board, which consists of 20 lawmakers who act on budget matters between sessions, released the money on June 3.

Withholding part of an agency budget is an unusual but not unprecedented move by lawmakers, who can delegate the E-Board to release money once their concerns are resolved.

The Legislative Fiscal Office, which does the staff work for the board, had recommended release of $63.2 million with the rest scheduled for September. But a legislative subcommittee voted for the full amount, and the board followed suit.

“I am not willing to wait until September,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who is the board co-chair, said before the June 3 vote. “I am not going to second-guess those on the front lines on this. I respect our Legislative Fiscal Office, but I do not agree with them on this.

“We are going to be pounding on this for a long time to come.”

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