Minnesota public defender 'gratified' after reinstatement

Public defender Mary Moriarty speaks after a case.
Chief Hennepin County public defender Mary Moriarty speaks in June 2019. Moriarty had been placed on paid leave pending an investigation into her performance.
Tim Nelson | MPR News 2019

One of Minnesota’s top public defenders was reinstated Wednesday, three months after being placed on paid leave pending an investigation into her performance.

Mary Moriarty welcomed the decision, saying she will continue to be an outspoken advocate for racial justice and marginalized communities.

In a statement issued through her attorney, Moriarty said she was “gratified to be returning to the job I love, advocating on behalf of our clients, our staff, and our community.”

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense said Moriarty would receive a written reprimand and return to work as Hennepin County's Chief Public Defender on March 30.

Moriarty, appointed in 2014, received an outpouring of support from public defenders and legal rights advocates nationwide after she was placed on leave in December with no clear explanation from the State Board.

Known for tirelessly standing up for her clients — and pushing back when she disagrees with prosecutors or judges — supporters said it appeared she was being punished for her outspoken advocacy around issues of racial justice. Among other things, they said she played a crucial role in reforms that led to the end of marijuana stings in downtown Minneapolis, which disproportionately affected black residents.

The State Board Board had been tight-lipped about the reason for the suspension.

But board's Vice Chair Molly Jannetta was quoted Wednesday by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying she was being reprimanded because she “failed to follow basic tenets of the chief public defender memorandum of understanding, general office policies and general behavioral expectations for all state chief defenders.”

The board was also upset that Moriarty told the Hennepin County committee that for financial reasons the county should take the public defender's office back from state purview, the paper wrote. And "a number" of criminal justice partners in the county had accused her of having a "fractured relationship,” said she was "non collaborative," and that she blurred lines between her social media presences and the role she had at work.

Moriarty’s attorney, Matthew Frank, said it was a “great day for public defense in Minnesota.”

“That is my focus today. There will be another day to focus on why Mary Moriarty was removed from office for three months, the process and investigation she endured in the meantime, and the decision to send a letter of reprimand,” he said in a written statement. “But in short, I do not believe these actions were consistent with the values of public defense and free speech.”

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