The firings of Montgomery County’s chief and deputy chief public defenders last week sparked swift outcry from supporters who saw the action as reprisal for the defenders’ staunch advocacy for indigent clients.
That claim appears to be supported by emails that ricocheted among the defenders, judges, and county officials in recent months. The messages, copies of which were obtained by The Inquirer, paint a picture of judges and county staff pressuring the defenders to tone down their advocacy — and in particular to withdraw a brief that described a “dysfunctional” bail system plagued by systematic denials of due process.
The county commissioners issued a statement Friday emphasizing their commitment “to supporting the vitally important work of the Public Defender’s Office and their dedication to defending the constitutional rights of indigent individuals accused of violating the law. Their zealous advocacy on behalf of their clients must continue to extend beyond the courtroom, and their efforts to provide a holistic approach to the extra-legal concerns of those they represent is a model.”
That did not stem a continued onslaught of criticism over the decision to terminate Chief Defender Dean Beer and Deputy Chief Keisha Hudson. State and national legal organizations have issued sharp statements of condemnation. Reform advocates and law students have planned a “Defend the Defenders” protest for Thursday morning outside the county commissioners meeting in Norristown, urging them to reinstate Beer and Hudson. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has launched a call-in campaign for supporters to contact the commissioners directly.
Meanwhile, 27 members of the office, including most of the lawyers on staff, have drafted an open letter warning that the firings will have a “chilling effect” and call into question the independence of the office.
But in a Feb. 10 email to Beer, Montgomery County Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak insisted that the brief about bail practices be withdrawn. Soltysiak called the lack of internal coordination before filing the brief a “fatal flaw.”
Beer withdrew the brief the next day. But on Feb. 13, he wrote to Soltysiak asking for clarification regarding “my independent role as the Chief Public Defender.”
In the memo, he claimed that Montgomery County President Judge Thomas DelRicci had threatened to pull his support for planned pretrial reforms if Beer did not rescind the brief.
“He was visibly upset and asked me what I thought I was doing,” Beer wrote, arguing that “there is no role for judicial oversight of our office, especially when the judge’s concerns seemed to be political.”
In a subsequent meeting, Beer wrote, DelRicci “threatened my role as the Chief Public Defender ... threatened my law license ... [and] threatened my job.”
DelRicci did not respond to a message left with his chambers Monday. A county spokesperson, who previously said the county does not comment on personnel matters, did not respond to follow-up questions on Monday afternoon about the communications with Beer and any connection to his termination.
According to a memo obtained by The Inquirer, Soltysiak denied that DelRicci had exerted influence. Instead, he documented what he considered to be Beer’s misguided or inappropriate initiatives. He cited three examples: the brief on bail practices; the defender’s filing of a right-to-know request regarding the cost of phone calls at juvenile placements; and the use of summer interns to document potentially racist social-media posts by police, an inquiry launched after The Inquirer reported on disparities in marijuana-related arrests in the county.
Soltysiak said in the memo that the social-media research was a misuse of resources because it was “for the purpose of providing information to the Philly Voice,” a website that covered the controversy. Reached by phone Monday, Beer said he had done nothing improper: “I always acted in the scope of my employment to represent our clients both in the courtroom and outside the courtroom, and to address systemic issues that affect our clients on a day-to-day basis.
In the memo, Soltysiak recounted meetings with Beer dating to August 2019 to discuss the “improper” use of resources.
Beer’s tense exchanges with Montgomery County judges also date back at least that far.
In an email chain from September, Steven O’Neill, the administrative judge in charge of probation, responded to Beer’s concerns over what the defender saw as a “coercive” new probation practice, under which incarcerated people were asked to waive their right to a hearing or a lawyer, by questioning the defender’s standing to challenge the practice — and then requiring that the defender must officially enter an appearance on each violation-of-probation case, considered an onerous requirement by the short-staffed office.
“Past practice or lack of court enforcement are not exceptions to the requirement that an attorney from your office enter an appearance,” O’Neill wrote in the email. He did not return a phone call to his chambers Monday.
The letter submitted by the 27 staff members said the firings “created a sense of confusion, fear, and had a chilling effect on those of us who remained. We were left to question the independence of the office, the impact of our advocacy, and whether such advocacy would be limited."