NYU Law sues Oregon over access to legal representation

The school’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law filed a class action lawsuit with the Oregon Justice Resource Center to hold the state of Oregon to its legal obligation of providing public defenders.

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File photo: The Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon. (Image via Oregon Department of Transportation)

Tori Morales, Deputy News Editor

NYU Law’s Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon for failing to provide public defenders to low-income individuals accused of crimes. The center joined the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Civil Rights Project, a legal nonprofit, in suing Oregon, asking that the state fulfills its legal obligation of appointing public defenders. 

The lawsuit, which was filed last month, comes as a shortage of public defenders has left around  1,300 accused individuals — many of whom are Black — without representation in Oregon. While the deficit exists nationwide, Oregon’s situation is especially urgent, according to Ted Jack, a legal fellow at the Center of Race, Inequality, and the Law.

“Here in Oregon, we’re talking about a system that is so far past its breaking point that poor people can’t even get a lawyer,” Jack said. “We’re asking the court to order the state to fulfill its obligation to provide effective counsel.”

The class action lawsuit seeks to hold Oregon and members of the Public Defense Services Commission accountable for alleged violations of defendants’ constitutional rights. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant’s right to legal representation.

Jack said that the issue is not only about representation, but about racial equity in the justice system. He also noted that the center is hoping to highlight the role that over-criminalization and over-prosecution play in straining the public defense system. 

“Black defendants are more reliant on public defenders than their white counterparts,” he said. “They’re more heavily impacted at every stage of the punishment system — at arrest, referral for prosecution, rates of conviction, sentence length, monetary penalties. All of this falls most heavily on their shoulders.”

Across the country, public defender offices are struggling to fill empty roles. Low average salaries discourage applicants, who often have hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans after finishing law school. Jack said that several Oregon public defenders are handling up to 1,600 cases per year — four times as many as national standards recommend. 

“About 40 people are waiting in jail for a public defense attorney to represent them,” Ben Haile, senior counsel at the Oregon Justice Resource Center Civil Rights Project, wrote to WSN. “They have not had a trial or any other chance to defend against the charges they face. Many need an attorney to help them access medical care and other necessities while they remain in jail.”

The Oregon Justice Resource Center filed a similar lawsuit against the state earlier this year, but it was dismissed by a judge who said she did not have the legal authority to hear the case.

Contact Tori Morales at [email protected]