Since George Floyd’s death on May 25, the nation has been watching Minneapolis. And what has come to light? Racism, injustice, inequality — the same evils that extend to every dark corner of our country.
The ACLU of Minnesota and our partners have been fighting these evils for decades. One of our strong allies in this battle for change is Mary Moriarty, the chief public defender of Hennepin County.
Moriarty runs the largest public defender office in the state. In her role, she has been a fearless crusader for criminal justice reform, championing many of the values the ACLU holds dear. She has worked with us to protect and advance people’s rights. She has fought for policing and prosecutorial reforms, advocated for pay parity for public defenders and challenged white supremacy in the system.
Her advocacy exposed and ended troubling sting operations by the Minneapolis Police Department: in one operation, disparities in marijuana arrests suggested blatant racial profiling; and in another, officers engaged in sexual contact before arresting suspects for prostitution.
Moriarty has also pushed the Hennepin County Attorney and the courts to do better. Examples abound. She criticized the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office for failing to comply with its obligation to turn over information about a prosecution witness. And she pressed Minnesota courts to adopt a juror video from the federal courts about implicit bias.
These are some of the reasons why the ACLU of Minnesota was deeply troubled when the unelected state Board of Public Defense abruptly suspended Moriarty in December. The suspension and investigation by the board in the months after were shrouded in secrecy. The board eventually reinstated Moriarty after issuing a letter of reprimand for — of all things! — pushing back against prosecutors and judges.
The Board of Public Defense is now considering whether to reappoint Moriarty, whose term expires soon. Once again, the board’s process not only lacks transparency — it is also illegal.
When appointing a chief public defender of a district, the board is required by Minnesota law to ask for recommendations from the public, the local bar association and the district’s judges. The law also requires the chief judge in the district to select two residents with “characteristics of the population” to vote too. Clearly, the Legislature wanted the board to hear from the public about this important post.
Rather than follow this law, the board created a “reappointment” policy that contradicts it. The policy does not require the board to solicit feedback from the public. Instead, the State Public Defender consults with “prosecutors,” among others in the criminal justice system, who may have “insight in the performance of the Chief Public Defender,” and report that information to the board. Additionally, the two public members of the board are consulted but not allowed to vote, even though they vote on appointments.
This opaque process could yield absurd results. For example, an inept chief could be continuously reappointed without any input from the people she defends because she is liked by prosecutors or judges. Or a chief could be targeted and removed for expressing opinions unpopular with prosecutors, judges or even the board itself.
George Floyd’s death is the latest tragedy to reveal the ugly underbelly of the Minneapolis Police Department, and of our community. It is clear that immense problems plague our criminal justice system. At times, these issues seem insurmountable.
That’s why having a public defender who never backs down from the fight for justice and equality is more critical than ever. The world is rightfully watching our city and our state. We must ensure that we have an open, transparent and fair appointment process. We cannot allow our staunchest advocates for change to be silenced and sidelined.
John Gordon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. Clare Diegel is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and a former public defender.