Protesters descended on Thursday’s monthly meeting of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, expressing outrage and demanding an explanation for the firing of the county’s top two public defenders.
Dean Beer, the former chief defender, and Keisha Hudson, his deputy, were dismissed Feb. 26, triggering outcries from lawyers and social-justice organizations as well as state and local elected officials, all of whom saw the firings as retaliation for the defenders’ public call for court reform.
That response grew in volume on Thursday with a rally on the steps of the county courthouse by more than 100 people, and remarks from dozens who signed up to speak publicly at the commissioners’ meeting. They included State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat who called on the three commissioners to respond beyond “press releases and platitudes.”
After listening to the public comments for two hours, Commissioners Valerie Arkoosh, Ken Lawrence, and Joe Gale said they would explore how to make the public defenders’ office an independent entity outside of government oversight, similar to the system used in Philadelphia.
Arkoosh and Gale said they were not reconsidering the decision to fire Beer and Hudson. Lawrence said only that he is in favor of cash bail reform, and wants to continue discussing the function and staffing of the defenders’ office.
“It’s critically important for me to get these policies enacted; we must have cash bail reform, and we must make sure that individuals who don’t have other options feel safe and comfortable in the defense they are getting," Arkoosh said. "And there is no question in my mind that our public defenders should defend their clients with no second thoughts about their jobs.”
Internal memos obtained by The Inquirer indicate that county officials had expressed frustration about Beer and his office in recent months. Their concerns reached a breaking point in February, when Beer filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit challenging bail and arraignment court practices. The suit was filed by the state chapter of the ACLU, the group that helped organize Thursday’s protest.
The county executive instructed Beer to withdraw the brief, and he was subsequently fired.
John McMahon, a Norristown criminal defense attorney and former county prosecutor, on Thursday called those actions “a poisonous spear thrust into the heart of our criminal justice system.”
“Your actions will have and have had a chilling effect on lawyers’ willingness to advocate on behalf of their clients,” said McMahon, who with other lawyers on Thursday filed an identical brief in the ACLU’s lawsuit. "You have sent a clear message. This is a gross violation of your oaths.”
In a memo sent six days before Beer and Hudson were fired, County Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak said Beer had previously forwarded him the brief for feedback, but filed it with the court before receiving that feedback. Soltysiak said the brief contained factual errors, and omitted references to ongoing efforts by the county to change the pretrial process.
Soltysiak praised Beer and his staff as being “zealous advocates for those [they are] tasked with defending,” and said their work was “appreciated beyond measure.” But Soltysiak also said Beer repeatedly failed to consult county officials before making decisions outside the scope of representing clients.
Soltysiak said Beer’s “repeated inability” to communicate with him, the commissioners, or the county solicitor before making decisions about reforms “is deeply concerning.”
At Thursday’s meeting, Marissa Boyers Bluestine, assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said Soltysiak’s understanding of a public defender’s role was flawed. She called on the office to become independent of county government oversight.
“Another role of a defender is to identify systemic issues to the justice system,” Bluestine said. “The criminal justice system needs balance. It can’t be collaborative all the time.”
Other public defenders from outside the county spoke up as well. Jack Fagan, a public defender in Bucks County, said the Montgomery County commissioners had made the work for Beer and Hudon’s subordinates much more difficult, especially when dealing with clients from marginalized communities.