Oregon defendants without a lawyer must be released from jail, US appeals court says

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a ruling that Oregon defendants must be released from jail after seven days if they don’t have a defense attorney.

In its decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called Oregon's public defense system a “Sixth Amendment nightmare,” OPB reported, referring to the part of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees people accused of crimes the right to a lawyer. The opinion said Oregon is responsible for upholding legal protections for criminal defendants.

Oregon has struggled for years to address its public defender crisis. As of Friday, more than 3,200 defendants did not have a public defender, a dashboard from the Oregon Judicial Department showed. Of those, about 146 people were in custody, but fewer people were expected to be impacted by Friday's ruling, according to OPB.

An Office of Public Defense Services draft report from March found that Oregon needs 500 additional attorneys to meet its obligations, OPB reported. State officials have sought to address the issue, including by taking such steps as providing additional funding, but structural issues remain.

Next year, the Oregon Public Defense Commission will move from the judiciary to the executive branch under the governor. State lawmakers hope the move will provide more support to the agency.

The 9th Circuit's decision upheld a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane last year. The case came from Washington County, where 10 people charged with crimes and held at the county jail while not having court-appointed attorneys filed a class action habeas corpus petition through the state's federal public defender's office.

Oregon’s federal public defender, Fidel Cassino-DuCloux, said Friday's decision “breathes life into the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, which have been an empty promise for too many presumptively innocent Oregonians charged with crimes.”

“We hope that the state authorities heed the Ninth Circuit’s instruction that no one remains in jail without counsel and implements the decision without delay," Cassino-DuCloux wrote in a statement.

When asked by OPB whether the state would appeal, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice said they’re reviewing the decision.