Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson (Courtesy/Paige Clarkson)
Nearly two dozen past presidents of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Saturday asked Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to put out a statement disavowing perceived attacks on criminal defense work by Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson.
The letter comes after two mailers promoting Clarkson’s re-election drew backlash from civil rights activists, the state’s chief justice and nearly a dozen attorneys who said she defamed them. The fliers took aim at 11 criminal defense attorneys and others who have made cash contributions to Spencer Todd, a public defender and her opponent in the May 17 race for district attorney.
The past presidents of the association, which has around 1,300 members statewide and 166 in Marion County, said Clarkson’s mailers “blatantly disparaged and defamed” their profession.
The nonprofit educational organization holds conferences and seminars as well as publishes books for defense lawyers, investigators, experts and law students.
They said Walters recently sent a letter to the entire state bar saying that every available attorney was “desperately” needed to help ensure everyone’s rights to a defense lawyer are met.
“Yet we still have an elected official, who also heads the statewide association of prosecutors, who takes a starkly different view of the right to counsel and the role of the public defense public servants in our legal system,” the letter said.
The letter said it was written in support of eight leading public defenders from across the state who asked Rosenblum last Thursday to withdraw her endorsement of Clarkson’s re-election. Rosenblum told Salem Reporter she would take no public action because Clarkson apologized.
After the attorneys named in the mailers wrote to Clarkson May 5 demanding a retraction and apology, “she refused to retract her statements but rather professed to have ‘apologized,’” the nonprofit’s letter said. “However her response was anything but an apology and only reinforced her microaggressions against the criminal defense bar.”
Clarkson last week told Salem Reporter in a statement that Marion County hasn’t seen a contested district attorney race in nearly 40 years and may not be used to the intensity it brings. She said her intention behind the mailer was to highlight differences in the type of support she and her opponent have received in their campaigns, adding that she was sorry if anyone was offended by the contents of the flier or interpreted it in a personal way.
In a Facebook post Friday, Clarkson said, “I’m truly sorry for the poor messaging. I should not have allowed that communication to be sent in that way. And I want to be clear: the professional work of criminal defense attorneys is absolutely necessary to our criminal justice system.”
Clarkson did not respond to a voicemail and emails requesting comment Monday.
The letter said as a longtime prosecutor, particularly one who has prosecuted domestic violence cases, Clarkson “should know there is a difference between saying one is sorry and one’s actions were wrong, and saying the person is sorry that her actions were misinterpreted by those who were wronged.”
They said Clarkson did not take responsibility for her actions and instead sent a second mailer referring to Todd as someone “supported by criminals and those who want to defund the police.” The letter said the second mailer implicitly characterized defense attorney supporters as criminals and people who want to defund police.
“She continues to contend— publicly— there is something ominous, dangerous and ‘bad’ about lawyers, officers of the court, supporting her opponent,” the letter said. “Her actions are unconscionable, unfair and further impugn the integrity of our entire criminal justice system at a time when we can least afford to have criminal defense further diminished. The work we defenders do has always been hard and soul trying but satisfying. It is we who ensure that even those who society designates the worst among us are accorded due process because, if we as defense lawyers don’t do that, then quite frankly, it would not happen.”
The letter described Clarkson’s mailers as “a cheap shot for purely political reasons at public defenders” at a time the profession is arguably in its worst crisis ever, as public defenders are quitting due to being overwhelmed with caseloads and receiving pay well below their counterparts in district attorneys’ offices and the state Department of Justice.”
They asked that Brown, Walters and Rosenblum issue a joint statement that “in this time of crisis you stand with public defense and disavow any public official, person of authority or public safety office who disparages public defense or the work of the criminal defense bar,” the letter said.
The governor’s office did not respond to a voicemail or emails seeking comment.
The letter also comes nearly a week after Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, announced his resignation from the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee, effective last Thursday. He did so after asking Walters to remove Clarkson from the advisory committee. She declined to do so, he said in his resignation letter.
“We are aware of his concerns, and told him yesterday that we also were disturbed by the content of the flier,” Todd Sprague, spokesman for the Oregon Judicial Department, told Salem Reporter May 10. “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.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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