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Former Oregon public defense leader files lawsuit over firing

Steve Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, was fired on Aug. 18, 2022.
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Steve Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, was fired on Aug. 18, 2022.

Stephen Singer, who until August was the executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, says his firing violated state laws designed to protect whistleblowers and charged the head of the Oregon Supreme Court with violating her authority under state law.

The former head of Oregon’s public defense system, who was fired in August after just eight months on the job, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the state claiming he was a whistleblower who faced retaliation and that his dismissal violated state law.

In a complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Stephen Singer, the former executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, states he reported to his superiors “the unconstitutional, illegal, and unethical state of public defense in Oregon” as well efforts by the Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters to “manage public-defense services in violation” of state law. In his lawsuit, Singer is seeking $2.4 million in damages.

For much of the past year, the shortage of attorneys has left the public defense system in crisis. As of Tuesday, the state had failed to provide attorneys for more than 800 people charged with crimes, a requirement under the constitution, according to data from the Oregon Judicial Department.

Oregon’s public defense system is overseen by the Public Defense Services Commission, whose members are appointed solely by the chief justice. The commission oversees the Office of Public Defense Services and its director. Under state law, “the commission and employees of the commission are not subject to the exercise of administrative authority and supervision by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as the administrative head of the Judicial Department.”

In his 35-page complaint, Singer contends Walters exceeded her authority. Like prosecutors and judges, public defenders are supposed to be independent to ensure criminal defendants are treated fairly.

“During his eight-month tenure as Executive Director, Singer pushed back against the Chief Justice’s attempts to increase public-defender workloads beyond Constitutional bounds, to appoint obviously unqualified attorneys to represent indigent defendants, and to meddle in the day-to-day affairs of public defense in Oregon,” the lawsuit states.

Singer’s dismissal was the culmination of a dramatic two weeks in August.

On Aug. 10, Walters called on commissioners to fire Singer. But when they did not, Walters dismissed the entire commission, setting off an extraordinary series of events. Days later, she announced a new commission composed largely of people who voted to fire Singer, or were new. On Aug. 18, the new commission met, and voted 6-2, to remove Singer.

This article may be updated.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.