Oregon chief justice fires all members of Public Defense Services Commission
SALEM, Ore. (KPTV) - Oregon’s entire Public Defense Services Commission has been fired, effective Tuesday. The state’s Supreme Court chief justice made the unprecedented move as the state deals with a public defense crisis.
Chief Justice Martha Walters announced the move on Monday. She says she never anticipated using her authority in that way but said the issue is too important and the need for change is too urgent.
The American Bar Association says Oregon has only 31% of the public defenders it needs. That means hundreds of people accused of crimes do not have attorneys that they are guaranteed under the Constitution.
Oregon’s public defender system is the only one in the country that relies entirely on contractors. They include large nonprofit defense firms, smaller cooperating groups of private defense attorneys, and independent attorneys who can take cases at will.
However, some firms and private attorneys are refusing to take new cases because of the workload. Poor pay rates and late payments from the state are also keeping them away.
Oregon’s system was underfunded and understaffed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the backlog grew even more because of it. It has now led to the dismissal of dozens of cases.
The Public Defense Services Commission is an independent body that governs the Office of Public Defense Services. It’s made up of nine members.
With the action by the chief justice, the commission will now need new Members. Chief Justice Walters says any members of the former commission who want to serve on the new one should apply by noon Tuesday.
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