If you've read our story in today's Mercury (on newsstands now!) about the relative paucity of pay for the state's public defenders, you know it's a situation the Oregon legislature's not likely to improve meaningfully in the near future.
Developments in Washington in past years, however, suggest there might be another route for defenders to better their situation, one that union reps say they're looking into: the courts system.
That worked for a Seattle public defender named Kevin Dolan, who in 2006 filed a class-action lawsuit against King County on behalf of employees of four organizations. The suit argued the public defenders, though technically employed by nonprofits under contract with the county, were essentially county employees and should be afforded the same benefits. In 2012, the Washington Supreme Court agreed.
Now, public defenders in Seattle are enrolled in the Washington Public Employees Retirement System, and the county is taking steps to formalize their role as employees.
There are clear differences between the King County system and Oregon's—not least of which what the Supreme Court opinion termed the "stringent control over the defender organizations’" county officials established. And King County, unlike the State of Oregon had "made an admirable effort to establish parity among the lawyers who work for the prosecutor’s office and the defender organizations," the court found.
But there are a great many similarities as well.
"I am surprised that there hasn’t been something filed down here," said Lane Borg, executive director of Portland-based Metropolitan Public Defender Services, the state's largest defender organization. "It would have a much bigger fiscal impact than it did there."
But the union that represents lawyers in Borg's organization hadn't heard about the case until asked about it by the Mercury. Now they're investigating.
"We'll have to sit down and take a look at this strategy," said Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75. "What we’ll probably do is take a look at this case in King County and how it’s proceeded and develop a strategy."