Ellison seeks review of public defender's suspension

Public defender Mary Moriarty speaks to press.
Chief Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty speaks after a June 3, 2019 sentencing hearing in Minneapolis.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Attorney General Keith Ellison on Thursday called for the Minnesota Board of Public Defense to examine the process that led to the suspension of Hennepin County's chief public defender, saying he believes Mary Moriarty was targeted for speaking out against racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Separately, law clerks and lawyers in Moriarty's office wrote to the board in her defense, praising her leadership and commitment to clients and calling for her reinstatement. And dozens of public defenders and public interest attorneys outside Minnesota signed onto a letter objecting to her suspension.

“When I hear that she’s in trouble because she tweeted something about a lynching, or spoke up about racial injustice, that’s just incredibly disappointing,” Ellison said Thursday, criticizing what he called a lack of transparency surrounding Moriarty's suspension. “And the way this has been handled raises serious questions about due process.”

Moriarty, appointed in 2014, was put on paid leave last week. Moriarty said she was summoned by State Public Defender Bill Ward and three members of the board's personnel committee. She said they expressed concerns about her management style, what they called inflexibility with other criminal justice officials and confrontations on the issue of racial inequality. They also questioned a series of Tweets about historic lynchings in the Deep South, she said.

Ward has declined to comment pending a review by the full state board, referring questions to a public relations firm, Minnesota Media Services. Nate Dybvig, a spokesman for the firm, and state board's chair, Anna Restovich Braun, both said there was nothing they could add. It's not clear how quickly the review will be completed.

The law clerks and lawyers in the county public defender's office wrote that they were “shocked and dismayed” by Moriarty's suspension, and disputed the concerns that Moriarty said were raised about her work.

“Our leader, who has earned our trust through vigorous advocacy for our office and its clients, has been ousted without reason by a group and a process that are hidden behind a curtain,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, dozens of public defenders and public interest attorneys from across the country have signed onto a letter to Ward and the board objecting to her suspension, said Aisha McWeary, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based career public defender. They intended to deliver it Thursday and have launched a social media campaign to collect more signatures,

“Her advocacy around issues of racial justice is a model for all of us,” the letter says, noting that among other things, Moriarty played a crucial role in reforms that led to the end of marijuana stings in downtown Minneapolis, which advocates say disproportionately affected black residents.

They worry that the decision “will undermine the Hennepin County Defenders Office’s core mission: to provide excellent legal representation to children and adults who need, but cannot afford, counsel.”

The office takes in 38,000 new criminal cases a year and, with only 120 lawyers, is the busiest in the state.

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