Home USA News NYU Law Sues Oregon State Over Access to Legal Representation

NYU Law Sues Oregon State Over Access to Legal Representation

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The school’s Center on Race, Inequality and the Law has filed a class-action lawsuit with the Oregon Justice Resource Center seeking to compel the state of Oregon to comply with its legal obligation to provide public defenders.

File photo: The Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon. (Image courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation)

The Law Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University is suing the state of Oregon for failing to provide public defenders to low-income people accused of crimes. The center joined the civil rights nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center in a lawsuit with Oregon, requiring the state to meet its legal obligations to appoint public defenders.

The lawsuit, which was filed last month, comes as lack of public defenders left about 1,300 accused — many of whom are black — without representation in Oregon. While the shortage exists across the country, the situation in Oregon is particularly pressing, according to Ted Jack, a legal fellow at the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law.

“Here in Oregon, we’re talking about a system that’s reached a breaking point where poor people can’t even get a lawyer,” Jack said. “We are asking the court to order the state to fulfill its obligations to provide effective counsel.”

The class action seeks to hold the State of Oregon and members of the Public Safety Commission accountable for alleged violations of the defendants’ constitutional rights. The Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees an accused person’s right to legal representation.

Jack said it’s not just about representation, it’s about racial justice in the justice system. He also noted that the center hopes to highlight the role of overcriminalization and overprosecution in straining the public defense system.

“Black defendants are more dependent on public defenders than their white counterparts,” he said. “They have a stronger influence at all stages of the penal system – during arrest, referral to court, the number of convicts, the length of the sentence, fines. All this is the biggest burden on their shoulders.”

There are public defender offices across the country struggling to fill empty roles. Low average salaries deter applicants who are frequent loans for hundreds of thousands of dollars after graduating from law school. Jack said several Oregon public defenders handle up to 1,600 cases a year — four times more as recommended by national standards.

“About 40 people are waiting in jail for a public defender to represent them,” Ben Hale, senior counsel for the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Civil Rights Project, wrote to WSN. “They did not have a trial or any other opportunity to defend themselves against the charges against them. Many need a lawyer to help them access medical care and other essentials while they remain in prison.”

Oregon Justice Resource Center filed a similar lawsuit against the state earlier this year, but it was dismissed by a judge who said she did not have the legal authority to hear the case.

Contact Torrey Morales at [email protected]

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