Appeals Court Rules Defendants Without Lawyers Must Be Released

( – Oregon has a severe shortage of public defenders. More than 3,200 defendants did not have a public defender as of May 31. Approximately 146 of them were in custody. A federal appeals court has now upheld a major lower court ruling related to attorneys.

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction that US District Court Judge Michael McShane issued in 2023 requiring the state to release defendants who are not assigned a public defender within seven days. The case was related to a lawsuit in Washington County where 10 people were charged with crimes and then held in the county jail without court-appointed attorneys.

The Court of Appeals panel decision ripped the state of Oregon apart in its opinion. In the 2-1 ruling, the 9th Circuit called the state’s public defense system a “Sixth Amendment nightmare,” because the Constitution requires the state to provide representation to defendants who cannot afford an attorney. The decision accused the state of being responsible for failing to uphold the legal protections for the criminal defendants in Oregon.

A spokesperson for Oregon’s Department of Justice told the media that it’s reviewing the opinion of the appellate court. Fidel Cassino-DuCloux, the state’s federal public defender, said the decision “breathes life into the Sixth Amendment right to counsel” which has long been an “empty promise” for defendants in Oregon.

In March, an Office of Public Defense Services draft report determined the state needs at least 500 more attorneys to meet its obligation to provide every defendant in need with counsel. The state has tried to fix the issue in the past by providing more money, but the problems persist. In 2025, the Oregon Public Defense Commission is going to move from the judicial branch to the executive branch. Proponents of the move hope that it will put the agency in a position to receive more support.

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