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Board fires head of Oregon’s public defense agency

A state board fired the head of Oregon’s state public defense agency Thursday, just eight months into his tenure and amid an ongoing public defender shortage that has left hundreds of Oregonians waiting for legal representation.

It was the second time in the past week that the Public Defense Services Commission has considered firing Stephen Singer, a longtime public defender hired in January to lead the state Office of Public Defense Services. The commission deadlocked last week, and Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, who appoints commission members,  responded by firing all nine of them on Tuesday.

She reappointed four members who supported firing Singer, along with one who defended him and four new commission members. The commission oversees public defense services in Oregon and appoints the agency’s director.

Singer, addressing the commission by video on Thursday before the 6-2 vote to fire him, decried Walters’ actions as those of a dictator. 

“This is what happens in Third World tin-pot dictatorships,” Singer said. “This is when the legislature or the parliament won’t do the bidding of the chief executive, so the dictator then dismisses the parliament and reconstitutes the parliament where the new parliament will be more pliable and do the dictators’ wishes.”

“This is also akin to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre,” he continued. “Let’s just get rid of anybody who won’t do what I want.”

The public defender crisis undermines a fundamental right. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says that suspects are guaranteed legal representation in federal cases if they can’t afford an attorney on their own, and the Oregon Constitution contains a similar guarantee. 

For a time, it looked like the commission would side with Singer. The four returning members – chairman Per Ramfjord, vice chair Paul Solomon and commissioners Lisa Ludwig and Max Williams – all voted to fire him, but the new commissioners expressed concerns. 

New commissioners Jennifer Nash, an attorney from Corvallis, and Kristen Winemiller, a Portland attorney, ultimately joined the returning commissioners in voting to fire Singer. Nash initially advocated for placing Singer on leave while an independent investigator looked into complaints levied against him by Walters, agency staff and others. 

“My fear is if there isn’t an independent investigation, the new executive director is going to be under the same cloud that the commission is if we moved to terminate Mr. Singer today,” she said. “We may have problems with staff recognizing the executive director as being a legitimate director, and it just seems to me that in the long run, it’s the prudent thing to do so that we can put these issues to rest once and for all.”

Comments from Williams, a former Republican state representative, and new commissioner Peter Buckley, a former Democratic state representative, convinced Nash and Winemiller to fire Singer, they said. The agency is preparing to seek more legislative funding, and the two said Singer’s style could make it harder to receive that money.

“If we stayed with the status quo here, it would damage the agency significantly in regard to the legislative process, because I’ve heard enough from former colleagues that there’s great disappointment and frustration over the state of where things are now,” Buckley said. 

Buckley and fellow new commissioner Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy for the Urban League of Portland, voted against firing him, calling instead for further investigation.  

Parrish Taylor said the commission needed to learn more about whether the complaints against Singer came down to personality conflicts or the quality of his work. The commission needed to remain focused first and foremost on resolving an ongoing shortage of public defenders, she said. 

“Fundamentally, the folks who are impacted are the folks without representation, and they don’t care about our feelings,” she said. “They care about the work getting done.” 

Singer told the commission during an interview last year that he planned to use his first nine months to a year studying the state’s public defense system, building relationships and understanding how it worked before making any changes.

At the time, he said, no one told him the state had a crisis of unrepresented clients. Singer started in early January, and a report from the American Bar Association about Oregon having only one-third of the public defense attorneys it needs was released in late January. 

Singer said he was troubled by weekly meetings with Walters, a court administrator and the board chair, as the American Bar Association’s principles of public defense include keeping the selection, funding and payment of defense attorneys independent from the court system.

He also objected to demands from Walters that he recruit volunteer civil lawyers, retired judges and second- and third-year law students to step in as public defenders. That approach didn’t work in other states, Singer said, and it’s “an extraordinarily reprehensible and unethical way to treat poor people charged with crimes.”

“The practice of criminal law, just like the practice of medicine and other professions, has become much more specialized than it was decades ago,” he said. “You would not want me or any other public defender to handle your will or your trust and estates. You do not want somebody who handles wills or trusts and estates or mergers and acquisitions, handling a criminal case, even a misdemeanor criminal case.” 

The commission plans to turn to two agency employees – current Deputy Director Brian DeForest, who is not an attorney, and Laurie Bender, the agency’s chief criminal trial counsel – to co-lead the department while it looks for an interim and eventual permanent executive director. 

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