For Appearances’ Sake
Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters prioritizes her reputation over others’ rights
Stephen Singer, the former director of Oregon’s stressed Office of Public Defense Services, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday, asking for nearly $2.5 million in damages for whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination.
The complaint — which is entirely believable — is a primer for those who want a better understanding of the complex problems facing the agency. However, it best serves to highlight the conduct of Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters, which, to be blunt, was quite bad, careening from self-interested to ignorant to outright illegal, and hitting every point in between.
Most damning is that Walters clearly views public defense services for the poor as charity, rather than a constitutional right.
Her perplexing unfamiliarity with the U.S. Constitution is going to cost Oregon both money and respect, on top of the damage that has already been done.
Bad press for Walters
Singer has an impressive background above and beyond his Harvard Law education: He worked as an attorney for one of the best public defense offices in the country (District of Columbia), taught law at Loyola, and earned distinction as a reformer of New Orleans’ broken defense system.
When Singer interviewed for the position in Oregon, he forewarned that change was difficult for those who had developed “an interest in the status quo” over the years. He also made it clear that he was a “forceful and outspoken advocate for the poor and powerless.”
He started work in late 2021, but found the agency in far worse condition than had been sold to him: It was in crisis mode, above and beyond the usual inefficient and wasteful system; and there was a severe attorney shortage. Singer’s plan to spend the first half a year “studying and understanding” went out the window.
According to his complaint, right out of the gate, Walters expressed her fear that “she was becoming the target of bad press” regarding the logjam of defendants without an attorney. More disturbingly, she did not appear to be concerned by the unconstitutionality of it all, but rather that it “threatened the public’s confidence in the judiciary.”
Given that the public defense crisis worsened during her watch, negative press directed at her was warranted. Nobody is above reproach. Similarly, as there was a pile up of defendants outside every courthouse in the state, waning public confidence was an appropriate response.
As such, she would need to rebuild trust, not simply force or demand it.
Everyone grab a mop
Walters is forbidden by statute “from managing day-to-day public defense,” yet she insisted on weekly meetings with Singer. He called them “inappropriate,” and hoped to end them altogether. Instead, they quickly became more frequent.
During those meetings, Walters repeatedly asked Singer to “put out a call” to members of the state bar, asking for “volunteer lawyers” to help handle the staffing crisis, regardless of whether or not those attorneys were experienced in criminal law. According to his complaint, Singer gently tried to educate the Chief Justice as to why it “would not be a good idea.”
He was far more polite than he should have been, because not only was the idea actually bad, it was also unconstitutional: The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant’s right to effective counsel, not just any old “warm body with a bar card.”
That is, poor defendants are not charity cases. They are citizens with rights that Oregon is constitutionally obligated to ensure, but largely failing to.
Despite Singer’s attempts to dissuade her from her bad idea, Walters wrote her own letter to bar members. Unsurprisingly, “very few lawyers volunteered” to mop up Oregon’s problems for free or low pay, and Walters was “widely mocked” by lawyers and the media alike.
The kicker: Walters then furiously blamed Singer for not stopping her — the Supreme Court Chief Justice! — from writing a letter and signing it.
Abuse of her authority
The Office of Public Defense Services is governed by a commission of nine members, all of whom are appointed by the Chief Justice, who also has the sole authority to remove those nine members. Despite that authority, the commission is supposed to remain independent, and the Chief Justice is not supposed to “control” public defense through the appointments.¹
However, by June, Walters was thoroughly frustrated by Singer’s refusal to be micromanaged or misdirected by her, but also by his failure to solve all of Oregon’s problems in six months. She had also taken issue with his “tone” (a pervasive problem with Oregon bureaucrats and “outsiders”), and had even succumbed to a lurid story about Singer which could have been debunked quickly by a “cursory inquiry” or full investigation, had anyone cared to conduct one.
So, Walters then did what every totally rational, due-process loving, non-dictator would do: she pressured the commission members to fire Singer… twice.
When those attempts failed, Walters abused her statutory authority and fired all nine commission members, and reappointed the four members who had voted to fire Singer.
That is the absolute opposite of independence, and the absolute definition of “judicial interference.”²
And on August 18, Walter’s new commission — remade in her image — voted to fire Stephen Singer.
Surrounded by enablers
Part of the reason that Walters had become so unhinged was that she had surrounded herself with people loosening her screws.
One of them was State Court Administrator Nancy Cozine, who held Singer’s job title from 2011 to 2018 — a long enough time to affect meaningful change at the agency, had she been interested in doing so.
It is a recipe for disaster to put someone like Cozine — an upwardly-creeping bureaucrat protective of their own legacy — into a position to critique their replacement’s work. And Cozine did not disappoint in that role: stirring the pot, buzzing in Walter’s ears, and generally veering out of her own lane.
Problematically, there was no authority (statutory or otherwise) for Nancy Cozine to be involved in a weekly meeting with the head of the Office of Public Defense Services and the Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Her presence — as both a Judicial Department employee and a former holder of Singer’s job — was flat out inappropriate, and constituted “meddling by the judicial branch in the public defense affairs.”
The other enabler was Per Ramfjord, the chair of the commission appointed by the Chief Justice, who astonishingly had “no experience or background in public defense.” Ramfjord was ineffectual in his role on the commission, avoided conflict, and was excessively concerned with Singer’s “tone” towards Walters — a person to whom Singer owed no everlasting deference, and whose weekly meetings were burdensome and improper.
Everything exploded on June 10, when Ramfjord came late to a commission meeting and saw that Singer had brought several senior staffers with him. Ramfjord “turned beet red, accused Singer of “sandbagging him,” and then tried to turn the public meeting into a private “executive session.” Singer resisted, as the meeting was being held to discuss a “personnel matter,” and Singer was the personnel.
It was Singer’s right — and his right only — to waive his privacy and demand a public meeting.
Yet Ramfjord’s tantrum apparently continued.
Finally, Singer defused the situation by agreeing not to exercise his right to require a public meeting. That is, Ramfjord’s bullying conduct rode roughshod over Singer’s rights.
A damning record
Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters should resign because of the broken system which became a crisis under her watch, and for all her unlawful meddling and oversteps of authority.
She won’t resign, of course… but the court of public opinion has a pretty stringent appeals process, and is rarely overturned.
Stephen Singer’s reputation will be fine, given that it was well-established before he came to Oregon, and his few detractors left an ugly and ridiculous record that is visible from space.
Unfortunately, it is the Oregon public that is the big loser here, and the thousands of poor defendants who make their way through the courts every year — many of whom are actually innocent, and all of whom deserve adequate representation. They missed out on one of the few people around who is able to tackle such a massive problem, and who was willing to try.
The spokesperson for the Oregon Judicial Department had no comment on the lawsuit, “Given that it’s a pending case.” Charlie Gerstein, Singer’s attorney, also had no comment at this time.
¹ Given the absolute brokenness of the Office of Public Defense Services, for which the Chief Justice is at least partially (or wholly) responsible, the Legislature should change the statute so that commission members are appointed by other criminal justice stakeholders, such as the Governor, members of the House and Senate, and various specialty bar associations. In fact, it was a recommendation from the national, non-partisan 6th Amendment Center that Oregon amend the statute so that “no single branch of government has a majority of appointments” to the commission.
² In its 2019 report on Oregon, the 6th Amendment Center warned that the “Public Defense Services Commission does not comply with… national standards, and critically its makeup [of nine members all appointed by the Chief Justice] memorializes judicial interference in the provision of defense services.”