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Oregon chief justice asks lawyers to act as public defenders

January 28, 2022 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters in an unusual public request is asking members of the State Bar to take on clients in need of public defense.

In a letter Thursday, Walters asked members to “help in representing those who are accused of a crime and cannot afford counsel,” calling it a very basic and fundamental right that Oregon is struggling to accommodate, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution affords people charged with crimes a lawyer provided by the state if they cannot afford their own.

As of Friday, over 40 people in Oregon did not have a public defender. Of those, 26 were in custody, according to the Office of Public Defense Services.

The shortage is most pronounced in the state’s largest counties including Multnomah, Marion, Lane and Washington.

A report released last week by the American Bar Association found Oregon has just 30% of the public defenders it needs for adequate representation with its current caseload.

Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon, said she appreciated the chief justice’s efforts at a short-term solution and expressed concern about whether there are enough attorneys with criminal defense experience to come forward.

Prosecutors, the state Office of Public Defense Services, judges and lawmakers need to jointly address the public defender shortage, she said, adding that part of that includes diverting people from the criminal justice system.