Montgomery County’s former top two public defenders filed federal lawsuits Tuesday accusing the county of firing them for criticizing bail practices in the county.
Last month, the county abruptly fired Chief Defender Dean Beer and Deputy Chief Public Defender Keisha Hudson, sparking protests from national advocates, a rally outside a Board of Commissioners meeting, a protest letter from the defender’s office’s lawyers, and fiery criticism from those who saw it as blatant political interference.
Their removal came two weeks after the county forced the defender’s office to withdraw an amicus brief before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court alleging illegal bail practices in the county — setting bail in hearings without lawyers or consideration of ability to pay.
“We witness firsthand the multitude of individual and community harms caused by dysfunctional bail practices that result in unnecessary and prolonged pretrial detention,” read the brief, which was filed Feb. 3 and withdrawn eight days later.
“Hudson was fired because she challenged statewide injustice by exposing the truth about Montgomery County’s unjust and unconstitutional bail system,” reads her complaint, which alleges that the county retaliated against her for exercising her First Amendment rights.
County officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
A letter from the county executive to Beer cited the amicus brief as a source of concern, but also said Beer and Hudson misused resources last summer when they assigned interns to review police officers’ social media accounts for racist language.
Hudson said that work started only after racist posts were already an issue in Montgomery County. The work, she said, was relevant to ensuring the fair treatment of her clients, and the issue is a pretext to conceal the retaliatory nature of the firings.
Hudson’s lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Civil Rights Corps, a group that advocates justice-system changes and the protection of defender independence.
Charlie Gerstein, an attorney for Civil Rights Corps, said in a statement that the coronavirus highlights the need for independent advocacy, saying the county is “continuing to expose [defendants] to a deadly pandemic just because they’re poor.”
Hudson said people in the jail are considered at particular risk for the virus due to the close quarters and lack of access to hand sanitizer.
“It’s a public health issue,” she said. She said she worries the defenders left on staff aren’t positioned to speak up. "They’ve been silenced. No one is really sounding the alarm about our clients.”
Montgomery County President Judge Thomas Del Ricci has directed judges to “pause” before imposing high bail, using it only for those whose release would threaten public safety.
The two firings were criticized by public defenders around the country, who argue that independence is critical to their jobs.
Benjamin Lerner, who served as chief defender in Philadelphia for 15 years before becoming a Common Pleas Court judge, said the “public defender in Montgomery County had a long history of lack of independence,” but added that he had been impressed with changes over the last decade.
“To me, [the firing] seems like a huge step backward,” he said.
“I was chief defender when Frank Rizzo was the mayor,” he said. “I never experienced anything like that.”