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Day after firing public defense commissioners, Oregon’s chief justice appoints new members

The day after she fired all nine members of the state commission that oversees public defense, Oregon’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters announced Tuesday that she was appointing four new commissioners and reappointing five commissioners from the previous group.

“This change in leadership occurred quickly, and our work will commence as quickly,” Walters wrote in a letter Tuesday to the new commission. “These issues are too important to delay.”

Last week, during a dramatic public hearing, Walters urged the commission to fire Steve Singer, the relatively new executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services. Walters, a nonvoting member of the commission, has described Singer as untrustworthy, needlessly combative and slow to address the state’s public defense crisis. Others in the public defense community have defended Singer as reforming a long-broken system, while also acknowledging he can be abrasive.

Despite Walter’s calls for his removal last week, the commission deadlocked 4-4, with one member absent, failing to secure the votes to remove Singer, who has held his position for less than a year.

Minutes after Walter’s publicly named the new commission Tuesday, the Public Defense Services Commission announced that it planned to hold an executive session Wednesday to meet with its attorneys and “to review and evaluate the job performance of the OPDS Executive Director.”

Walters has declined OPB’s interview requests.

“I think it was precisely because the commission refused to fire Steve Singer that the commission was fired,” now former Commissioner Mark Hardin, a retired attorney who voted against removing Singer, told OPB on Monday. “It’s hardly a leap.”

All four commissioners who voted to fire Singer were reappointed, along with one member, Alton Harvey Jr., who voted to keep Singer as head of the Office of Public Defense Services. All commissioners are volunteers.

The four new members of the state’s public defense commission are:

- Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy for the Urban League of Portland

- Peter Buckley, a Democratic former state representative from Ashland

- Jennifer Nash, an attorney who practices family law in Corvallis

- Kristen Winemiller, a Portland attorney

None of the new commissioners immediately returned OPB’s requests for comment.

The five reappointed commissioners are Harvey, Lisa Ludwig, Max Williams, Paul Solomon, and Per Ramfjord, who was reappointed chair of the commission.

“I am appointing each of you because of what you bring to this mission and vision,” Walters stated in her letter Tuesday to the commission. “I also am appointing you because I believe that, collectively, this body can build on the decisions and commitments already made and move forward to achieve the necessary changes with an inclusive and respectful approach that unites us in our common goal.”

This story is breaking and may be updated.

OPB’s Dirk VanderHart contributed reporting.

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