Oregon Defendants Without A Lawyer Must Be Released From Jail, U.S. Appeals Court Says

In a significant ruling, a federal appeals court has upheld a decision stating that defendants in Oregon must be released from jail after seven days if they do not have a defense attorney. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals referred to Oregon’s public defense system as a “Sixth Amendment nightmare,” emphasizing the state’s responsibility to uphold the constitutional right to legal representation for individuals accused of crimes.

Oregon has been grappling with a public defender crisis for years, and the recent ruling sheds light on the severity of the issue. According to the Oregon Judicial Department’s dashboard, as of Friday, over 3,200 defendants were without a public defender. Among them, approximately 146 individuals were in custody, but the impact of Friday’s ruling was expected to be limited.

The Oregon Department of Justice is currently reviewing the decision, according to a spokesperson. A draft report from the Office of Public Defense Services in March highlighted the need for 500 additional attorneys in Oregon to fulfill the state’s obligations. While officials have made efforts to address the crisis, such as providing additional funding, there are still underlying structural issues that need to be resolved.

Next year, the Oregon Public Defense Commission is set to transition from the judiciary to the executive branch under the governor. State lawmakers hope that this move will offer greater support to the agency and help alleviate the public defender shortage.

The 9th Circuit’s decision upheld a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane last year. The case originated from Washington County, where ten individuals facing criminal charges and held at the county jail without court-appointed attorneys filed a class-action habeas corpus petition through the state’s federal public defender’s office.