Ignoring the Warning Signs

Back in 2019, the 6th Amendment Center (6AC) — a national, non-partisan organization focused on the constitutional right to effective counsel — released a detailed report about Oregon’s broken public defense system, calling it a “complex bureaucracy” with insufficient oversight and financial accountability.

Among its findings, the report specifically warned about the concentration of power in Oregon’s Chief Justice’s hands, as the sole individual who can appoint members to the commission that oversees the Office of Public Defense Services (OPDS).

The report recommended that the commission instead be “made up of members selected by diverse appointing authorities, so that no single branch of government has the ability to usurp power” over OPDS and its business of defending indigent clients.

6AC’s report further warned that a commission comprised entirely of the Chief Justice’s appointees “institutionalizes judicial interference” in the administration of defense services, and excludes the executive and legislative branches from the process. To take the edge off of that stunning feedback, the 6AC stated:

“None of this is to suggest any nefarious conduct or motive on behalf of the Oregon Chief Justice. To the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the current and any future Chief Justice fully desires for the [commission] to properly carry out its work.”

The findings and recommendations regarding the Chief Justice and the commission were apparently of such importance that they were even included in the 6AC’s short summary of the 238-page report.

Those very specific warnings conveyed by the 6AC in 2019 went unheeded, including by Chief Justice Martha Walters, who certainly read the report at that time. And here we are in 2022, just a few days after Walters fired all nine members of the commission and still holds the sole power to replace them all.

It appears to some that Walters fired the commission members because they would not do what she urged them to do; and presumably Walters plans to replace them with people who will.

Walters’ immediate goal: to remove OPDS Executive Director Steve Singer, whom she called “untrustworthy” and “needlessly combative.”

Singer has been on the job for less than a year, and was brought in to clean up a mess whose scope and complexity was clearly misrepresented to him, and which was created at least in part by the inattention of the current and former Chief Justices. The issue burst into the public consciousness in January after the American Bar Association released its own report about OPDS.

When asked about the present situation, 6AC’s Deputy Director Jon Mosher said, “As we said in 2019, the composition of [the commission] does not meet national standards that call for diverse appointments so that no single branch of government can exert outsize control over the commission’s affairs.”

Mosher continued, “The people who set all public defense policy in Oregon’s state courts serve entirely at the pleasure of a single justice. Meanwhile, the executive and legislative branches are excluded from holding any stake in or responsibility for the success of the public defense system — as are members of the client community, academicians, researchers, minority constituents, and others who might have much to contribute.”

He further reiterated the 6AC’s advice that the makeup of the commission “comply with national standards” to ensure “defender independence,” adding that their “recommendation is every bit as relevant today as it was in 2019.”

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