Oregon chief justice “disturbed” by Clarkson’s political mailer targeting defense attorneys

The Oregon Supreme Court Building on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A contentious mailer promoting Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson’s re-election drew concerns from civil rights leaders and the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court after nearly a dozen criminal defense attorneys contended she defamed them.

The mailer took aim at 11 attorneys and others who have made cash contributions to Spencer Todd, a public defender and Clarkson’s opponent in the May 17 primary, and prompted the attorneys to write Clarkson on May 5 saying the campaign piece demonized criminal defense attorneys.

Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, announced his resignation Tuesday from the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee effective Thursday, May 12. He did so after asking Chief Justice Martha Walters to remove Clarkson from the advisory committee. She declined to do so, he said in his resignation letter.

Singh said in an email to Walters Friday evening that Clarkson should be removed because the values expressed in her political flier contradict the committee’s duties. He emailed his resignation to Walters Monday evening, according to Todd Sprague, spokesman for the Oregon Judicial Department.

“We are aware of his concerns, and told him yesterday that we also were disturbed by the content of the flier,” Sprague said Tuesday. “We assured him that the position taken by District Attorney Clarkson does not reflect the values of the Chief Justice’s (Criminal Justice Advisory Committee), and let him know that we would need more time to determine what actions, if any, are needed.”

The 24-member committee advises the chief justice on changes to court roles and services such as pretrial release, remote proceedings, collecting race and ethnicity data, examining impacts of fines and fees and mitigating the impact of bias in fact-finding, Sprague said.

“The chief justice will continue to ensure that she has an advisory committee comprised of members who are committed to creating a system that delivers on the promise of justice for all,” he said.

Singh said Clarkson vilified public defenders and people with criminal records in her mailer. 

“The bigotry and narrow mindedness articulated by DA Clarkson’s rhetoric is unacceptable,” he wrote in a statement, adding that it conflicts his values and those of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

“Allowing her to remain on the (Criminal Justice Advisory Committee) without consequences affirms that it is acceptable for a public official who is entrusted with the life and liberty of Oregonians to hold such a value system,” he said. “DA Clarkson has chosen to scare her community by attempting to persuade them to believe the worst about people; she uses the lowest common denominator in our conversation about community wellbeing: fear and anger. This cannot be okay. We must reject these values and those who espouse them.“

A copy of a mailer promoting the re-election of Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. (Courtesy/Virginia Norblad)

Singh said he could not “legitimize” Clarkson by participating in a statewide committee with her, and that those who participate in such committees need to recognize every Oregonian’s humanity and dignity.

“We are witnessing the erosion of rights and liberties because we allow DAs like Clarkson to shift the norms of what is acceptable towards intolerance and a limited view of who is deserving of dignity.”

In an email to Walters Monday announcing his resignation, Singh said he hopes to use his position to spark a conversation about “access to justice.”

“I am not trying to create a controversy or be hyperbolic, but I feel like this it is [sic] important to take a stand,” he wrote.

His resignation came on top of a demand last week by 11 attorneys that Clarkson named in her flier that she retract the piece and apologize.

“I can appreciate that people have reacted strongly to the campaign mailer,” Clarkson told Salem Reporter on Wednesday.

She reiterated a previous statement that Marion County hasn’t seen a contested district attorney race in nearly 40 years and that the community may not be used to the intensity such a race brings.

“I truly regret that anyone is offended by the contents of the mailer,” she said in an email. “It was definitely not my intent to do anything other than highlight the significant differences in the type of support my opponent and I have received-both in the way of endorsements and especially in the sources of financial contributions made to each campaign. I’m sorry if that was interpreted in any personal way.”

Clarkson said she respects the role of criminal defense attorneys. 

“Their professionalism and zealous advocacy for their clients is absolutely necessary for our system of justice to function. But our roles within that system are very different. My job is to seek justice,” she said.

She said the intended message of the mailer was that voters in Marion County should understand those differences.

The flier is a stark, slick product sent to voters soon after mail-in ballots went out, with a tone that is ominous at a time when polling shows crime issues are among the most important to Oregon voters this year.

“You know a man by the company he keeps” the flier says and asks, “So why is Spencer Todd paling [sic] around with defense attorneys & convicted criminals?” 

A different version of the campaign flier, which Todd said arrived more recently in mailboxes, referred to him as someone “supported by criminals and those who want to defund the police.” 

The flier named what it described as an “army of criminal defense attorneys” and two other contributors to Todd’s campaign. 

“Tell the criminals and those who defend them that our Marion County District Attorney’s Office is not for sale,” it said.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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