Court Says Oregon Defendants Without Lawyers Can Walk Out of Jail

Judge with gavel sitting at wooden table against light grey background, closeup

A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling mandating the immediate release of prisoners without legal counsel from Oregon prisons. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Oregon’s public defense system was in direct defiance of the Sixth Amendment, which ensures that everyone accused of a crime has the right to an attorney. The ruling emphasized that the duty to preserve legal safeguards for defendants in criminal cases lies with Oregon.

As of Friday, over 3,200 defendants did not have access to a public attorney, according to data from the Oregon Judicial Department. Although fewer persons were expected to be impacted by Friday’s verdict, around 146 individuals were in detention.

The governor will oversee the Oregon Public Defense Commission in the next year, and lawmakers in the state are hopeful that the agency will receive more aid as a result of this move. The Oregon Department of Justice is currently reviewing the decision, and a March draft report from the Office of Public Defense Services indicated that Oregon requires 500 more attorneys to meet its commitments. 

The fundamental structural problems remain despite the state officials’ allocation of more money and efforts to address the situation. Some changes are taking place, including hiring former public defenders to work as state workers at the trial level.

Judge Michael McShane of the United States District Court had already imposed a preliminary injunction, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this ruling. Ten inmates filed a class action habeas corpus petition without court-appointed counsel who were held in county jail on criminal charges.

Circuit Judge Patrick Bumatay’s opposing opinion characterized the injunction and the Ninth Circuit’s majority judgment as reckless and extreme and asserted that the Ninth Circuit is now complicit in a judicial jailbreak.