Chief public defender’s ‘star chamber’ suspension widely denounced

Photo by Phillip Hussong Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty

Her outspoken challenge of racial injustices seen as possible motive

New Analysis

It has been over two months since Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty was abruptly placed on suspension by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense two days before Christmas. The lack of clear information on exactly why she was suspended has opened the door to accusations that she is the victim of a kind of “star chamber” attempt by the power structure to use the board to subvert the law and silence an outspoken attorney.

The “star chamber,” which was popularized in monarchal England in the late 15th century, refers to any secret or closed meeting held by a judicial or executive body, or to a court proceeding that seems grossly unfair or that is used to persecute an individual.

While her suspension remains clouded in mystery, State Public Defender William Ward released a statement on the day Moriarty was placed on paid leave that she was suspended “pending a review of issues that have been brought to the attention of members of the Board of Public Defense.”

However, those issues have not been made clear and have left the door open to speculation. It has been rumored that the board took issue with her advocacy to increase public defenders’ pay and accused her of inflexibility, instilling a culture of fear in her office, making allegations of racism, even taking issue with a retweet condemning lynching. Many believe it is her outspokenness that brought on her suspension.

In an unusual move, the Board of Public Defense hired a PR person to handle inquiries. But the PR person is not talking. “I find it odd that an organization that has complained about not being sufficiently funded could afford to hire a PR firm,” said local lawyer Jordan Kushner.

Moriarty is well respected among her colleagues locally and nationally. In fact, a group of lawyers from around the country who have worked with her have circulated a petition in her support.

Several local groups have come to the defense of the lead public defender. The Minnesota ACLU Executive Director John B. Gordon issued a statement saying: “The ACLU of Minnesota is deeply troubled by the suspension of Chief Hennepin County Public Defender Mary Moriarty and the associated disruption to criminal justice reform efforts. Moriarty has been a fearless crusader for criminal justice reform, championing many of the values the ACLU holds dear and working with us to protect and advance people’s rights.

“She has pushed for warrant, policing and prosecutorial reforms, advocated for pay parity for public defenders and challenged White Supremacy in the system. She has called out racial disparities inherent in marijuana arrests.

“Given all of her contributions, the State Board of Public Defense owes it to the community to explain her suspension and to ensure that there is a fair and transparent review with sufficient due process. No one should be fired for being speaking truth to power,” the ACLU statement reads.

The issues raised in this statement are some of the same raised by others who have speculated that there is more to the suspension than the board is willing to admit. The University of Minnesota Law School chapter, St Thomas University Law School chapter, and Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild have written in a letter addressed to the Board of Legal Defense:

“Based upon what has come to light via public discourse, and based upon our collective professional interactions with Ms. Moriarty, we denounce her ongoing investigation by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense… We urge the Minnesota Board of Public Defense to conclude the investigation and reinstate Ms. Moriarty. We also demand a transparent and meaningful public explanation of the underlying basis for this taxpayer-funded investigation.”

“Mary is an excellent chief public defender,” said Michelle Gross of Communities United Against Police Brutality. I think there are some other things at work here and it has to do with her outspokenness on issues of racial and social justice.”

Gross’s group, which sought to take their complaints to the board last month but were refused an audience, also believes Moriarty was suspended for being outspoken on issues like pay for public defenders. In Hennepin County, prosecutors start at $74,177.82 a year while public defenders start at 60,401.

Responding to rumors that Moriarty has created a “culture of fear” in her workplace, a large number of Moriarty’s employees in the public defender’s office have defended and praised her leadership in a letter to the board that reads in part as follows:

“Given the Board’s silence…we are compelled to respond to the misguided and untrue allegations that concern our office. We are not plagued by a culture of fear… The Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office sets the bar for what a public defender’s office should be: collaborative, supportive and tenacious. Many of us joined the office because of Mary and the positive atmosphere she has created.”

The letter ended saying, “Mary’s job is to advocate for our community and for us her employees—not to serve those in power.” Moriarty appears to have been quite the thorn in the flesh to the power structure; she even penned an editorial last summer calling for the banning of “pretext stops” by law enforcement. Moriarty has also been an outspoken advocate for the indigent, homeless and Black people.

Former U.S. congressman and current Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison wrote in a tweet in January that Moriarty is “one of the most principled people I know. I’m concerned about her treatment; it appears connected to her advocacy for racial justice.”

While there is no apparent date for the resolution of the issue that brought about Moriarty’s suspension, there is little doubt that her absence and her competence—which no one denies—is leaving a gap in the ability to provide top quality legal defense to the indigent who need it most.  As her fellow attorneys expressed in their petition, they “are concerned that Ms. Moriarty’s abrupt suspension…will undermine the Hennepin County Public Defender’s core mission: to provide excellent legal representation to children and adults who need, but cannot afford, counsel.”

An editorial by the Mankato Free Press voiced even larger concerns. “The longer the board sits mute—the longer Moriarty is sidelined with no public rationalization—the less credibility the board has, not only on this specific personnel issue but with the larger issue of racial inequity in the courts.”