The Minnesota Board of Public Defense is the state agency tasked with fulfilling the constitutional right to counsel for indigent accused persons. Its stated goal is to provide “excellent” legal representation to accused persons who cannot afford lawyers through an “independent” system free from political pressures.
On Dec. 23, 2019, the board undermined this mission when it abruptly suspended a national leader in public defense, Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty. Because this decision could impact the staff and clients of Minnesota’s busiest public defender office, we, along with over 700 other public defenders and public interest attorneys from 44 states, two U.S. territories and eight other countries, are asking the board to reinstate Ms. Moriarty.
Moriarty has spent the last 30 years redefining what it means to be a public defender. In particular, her advocacy around matters of racial justice is a model for all of us, and especially for those of in leadership positions in other jurisdictions.
For instance, Moriarty’s office shined a light on racially discriminatory policing practices involving low-level marijuana offenses. The Hennepin County public defender’s calls for reforms led to the end of marijuana stings in downtown Minneapolis that disproportionately affected black residents. Moriarty’s opposition to cash bail, a system that drives wealth-based detention in Minnesota, has been vital to recent efforts to end the practice. Her willingness to speak truth, even when it is difficult for others to hear it, and even when it is personally dangerous for her, is the type of zealous advocacy that all public defenders must provide their clients.
But Moriarty has not stopped there. She has committed herself to raising the bar for public defenders with her incomparable training. We are among the hundreds of public defenders and public interest attorneys who know Moriarty through her selfless dedication to teaching and inspiring young public defenders around the country. Many of us have had the privilege to teach alongside her. She inspires us, challenges us, mentors us, and shows us that a courageous leader doesn’t have to be the loudest voice in the room.
Moriarty’s positive impact on our careers has translated into better representation for hundreds of thousands of indigent adults and children all over the United States.
Our experiences with Moriarty stand in stark contrast to the picture painted by the state’s Public Defense Board. One of the purported reasons for her suspension is an alleged “culture of fear” in the office. This characterization is as foreign to us as it is to members of Moriarty’s staff.
In a letter to the board asking for her reinstatement, Hennepin County public defenders wrote that they were “shocked and dismayed” by the removal of a “leader who earned [their] trust through vigorous advocacy for [them] and clients.” They called Moriarty’s suspension an “ouster without reason.”
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has similarly called for an investigation into Moriarty’s swift removal.
The Minnesota Board of Public Defense can right its current course by providing Moriarty with the same due process and dignity that she has spent a career championing for the residents of Hennepin County. We are confident that at the end of a fair investigation, Moriarty will be reinstated as chief defender of Hennepin County.
Atteeyah Hollie, of Atlanta, Ga., is senior attorney, Southern Center for Human Rights. Georgia Sims is assistant deputy chief public defender in Nashville, Tenn. This commentary is submitted on behalf of 707 public defenders and public interest attorneys worldwide who have signed an online petition.